Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
★★★ / ★★★★
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, two staff members, Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) and Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), of Appleyard College, took the girls to Hanging Rock for some fun and relaxation. When four of the girls decided to climb the rock to explore and appreciate the scenery, only one of them made it back down. Irma (Karen Robson) was so spooked of what had just happened up there that she found herself unable to put her experience into words. Despite an initial search, there was no sign of the girls. Worse, it turned out that Miss McCraw went missing, too. Based on the novel and screenplay by Joan Lindsay and Cliff Green, respectively, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” felt like a retelling of real events that happened in the past because its curiosities were understated. The more we asked ourselves questions pertinent to the bizarre disappearances, the screenplay felt more reluctant to hand out answers that may come off as too easy or convenient. Instead, the cinematography fueled the sinister wheel of suspense. For instance, especially during its rising action, the majority of the scenes were shot in wide open spaces, no detail too microscopic, from the blades of grass dancing along the direction of a mild gust to the way the girls played with their attires as if they were flirting with one another. There was a peaceful rhythm that safeguarded the calm, very true to just another day of idle chatter and extended naps while having a picnic. But as the material inched toward the unknown, reflected by the four girls making their way up the rock, it adopted a different technique: the music worked to a crescendo as the girls gained more elevation, awkward camera angles mirrored the way the girls tilted their heads as if searching for something in the giant crevices, and shadows pocketed in the narrow spaces became more pronounced. If it weren’t for them speaking like normal girls from time to time, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that they had been possessed by spirits or summoned by a song only detected by special ears. Although the hike was set in the afternoon, the sun still very bright, I was impressed by how much it pulled me. Eventually, I reached such a state of paranoia that I ended up mentally connecting edges of the rock and came up with distorted faces that looked down on unsuspecting hikers. The aftermath of the four missing people was handled with finesse. It focused on realistic repercussions of the unsolved mystery. As a witness, Michael (Dominic Guard), a visitor from England who happened to be around the same age as the students who had gone missing, wrestled with the guilt of not walking up to the girls and talking to them. In his mind, if he had found the courage to speak to them while on their way up the rock, they probably would have decided to stay at the base. Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the leader of the college, had to deal with the reputation of the school. It could have been so easy to make her come off as if she didn’t care about the missing people given her steely resolve to maintain a number of enrollment for next term but I felt a glimmer of inner turmoil in her cold demeanor. Directed by Peter Weir, the magic underneath the realism of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was that although it felt like we were solving a puzzle with missing jigsaw pieces, it remained a satisfying and haunting experience. Its grip on me remained strong after several hours.