Based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a classic Australian movie about a girl’s school field-trip to the titular geological formation on Valentine’s Day, 1900 (Hanging Rock, a large mountain-like structure made of congealed magma that once poured up out of the earth, is a real place in Central Victoria, Australia). I know, I know, it doesn’t sound that exciting, but hold on…things are about to get weird.

Things take a strange turn when a few of the girls wander off on their own and eventually, while seemingly under some sort of trance, march in line into one of Hanging Rock’s cave-like recesses, despite the screaming pleas not to of a fellow classmate (who isn’t really sure why she is so upset about it – she just SENSES something is wrong). The girls never return, and in fact one of the teachers on the trip ALSO goes missing just a little while later. The rest of the film focuses on the school and the nearby town dealing with the disappearance of the girls and the subsequent investigation, which gets really weird when one of the missing girls IS found days later, with only minor cuts and bruises but absolutely no memory of what happened that day on Hanging Rock.

It might sound an odd thing to say, given the subject matter, but this is an absolutely beautiful movie. Peter Weir’s fantastic directing is enhanced by Russell Boyd’s gorgeous cinematography and an excellent score made up of pre-existing classical and panpipe music (in addition to one very chilling piece of original music by Bruce Smeaton). The whole movie has a very haunting, dream-like atmosphere to it – it’s telling that many people often refer to it as a horror film, even though it doesn’t exactly fit neatly into that genre. Still, it IS an incredibly creepy film, thanks both to the eerie sounds and visuals AND the fact that the movie offers no real answer to the mystery. This is what Picnic at Hanging Rock is perhaps best known for, so I don’t really feel like I’m heading into spoiler territory by saying that the girls’ disappearance is never resolved.

This might upset the kind of viewers who want everything wrapped up in a nice little bow, but the “how” isn’t really what the movie is about, anyway. It’s more interested in the fallout of the event, and how the other schoolgirls, their teachers (including the stereotypical mean old headmistress) and other involved characters try to deal with the aftermath of the disappearance. At this point, the movie spends a lot of time on the relationship between the headmistress and one of her young students, an orphan girl she clearly doesn’t like and wants to force out of the school. I can see some people feeling bored by this section of the movie, and complaining that it doesn’t have anything to do with the events at Hanging Rock. But then, that raises the question – how much of anything (or everything) in this movie IS somehow connected to those events? And, to be sure, the story of the headmistress and the orphan girl does build up to a shocking climax every bit as mysterious as the earlier events (whether the two are somehow connected is open to your interpretation, I suppose).

It would be interesting to see this movie released today – I have to imagine its slow pace and lack of answers would frustrate many modern audience members who have grown accustomed to just the opposite. But then again, I think the movie still works just as well today as it did back in 1975. There is just something about it that is hard to shake after you watch it…heck, WHILE you watch it. I’m recommending it to anyone reading this page who has a little more patience when it comes to watching movies, especially if they like creepier, spooky sort of stuff.

By the way, it turns out that Joan Lindsay actually DID write a chapter in the original novel in which she did explain just what it was that happened to the girls on Hanging Rock. Her publisher, sensing that the mystery might be more captivating without a resolution, convinced her to cut it out before releasing the book. Years later, the chapter was finally released as a short story. You might be tempted, like I was, to go read the summary of this chapter – and thus the answer to the story’s puzzle – after watching the movie. I’m telling you right now, you really shouldn’t do it. I wish I hadn’t. Not surprisingly, the answer can’t really live up to the power of the mystery itself, and in fact, it’s really sort of cheesy. You’re better off just drawing your own conclusions.

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on April 22nd, 2011.

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