It is obvious that “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is extremely rich in allusion and value levels. The hypothesis in this essay only presumes to suggest further enrichment in terms of an historical theme.
The bias is mainly historical. I lack proper command of the tools of film criticism but must attempt to integrate some more broadly cultural aspects with the historical interpretation.
Quite early in the film, perhaps when the first magnificent shot of the bush covered rock contrasted so strongly with the immaculate girls in long white dresses from their thoroughly English style “Public” school, some words of Marcus Clarke’s, quoted by W.K. Hancock came to me. “The Australian mountain forests”, wrote Marcus Clarke, “are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle in their black gorges a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade …”.W.K. Hancock, Australia. (Earnest Benn Limited, London, 1931) p. 49 Hancock, in this chapter, is developing the theme of the transplanted Briton struggling to become the “independent Australian Briton”.
The concept of the mature British/European culture coming to terms with a new, raw land is well exploited in Australian literature. It is central to the conflict that drove Richard Mahoney to despair; Furphy used the Englishman, Willoughby, in “Such Is Life”, not only as a foil for his colonial types, but, arguably, also as an echo of this background culture.
Many other examples could be given, but the point is fairly obvious.
The burden of this essay is to suggest that Picnic at Hanging Rock relies heavily upon this theme, and that it is developed with extraordinary refinement and delicacy.
The evidence in fact seems irresistible. At the beginning we are told that the picnic was held on St. Valentine’s Day, a thoroughly European festival, permeated with delicate sentiment. The incongruity of this sentiment in the colonial setting is emphasized later when two of the girls stand against the base of the rock and read romantic snatches of poetry.
The English style, public boarding school, (housed in a classical mansion), owned by an English Headmistress, impressing habits of good taste, manners, decorum and morality, is a constant symbol of European culture throughout the film. The image is further enriched by Medemoiselle Portiers, the French mistress, who contributes an entrancing side of beauty, poise and human tenderness. Miss McGraw adds perhaps the only touch of intellectual rigour, though her contribution cannot be necessarily claimed as European.
The placing of this massive body of European symbolism in a country setting which is dominated by the forest covered rock, which itself is invested with mysterious, sinister, terrifying powers, clearly echoes Clarke’s “funereal, secret, stern” imagery.
Victorians who know something of the Hanging Rock area have the advantage of knowing that “Clyde”, until recently a very exclusive girl’s school, existed only a few miles from the Rock. This knowledge could help to dispel any suspicions that Joan Lindsay was stretching our credulity a little by creating such a setting.
The formal English picnic of which we have such visual reminders as ‘Picnic at Clark Island’,Greig, 1861 until recently in Vaucluse House, Sydney, now in the National Gallery, N.S.W., is contrasted starkly against the Rock and is the delicate base from which the action takes place.
The girl’s picnic at the Rock is repeated at another level by the picnic held in the immaculate grounds of Colonel Fitzhubert’s home. This latter picnic serves as a springboard for the counterpoint action of the boys.
The formalism of English traditions is almost caricatured by the extreme withdrawal of the Fitzhuberts. They say nothing, hardly move and appear acutely uncomfortable. In contrast the girls are anxious to relate to their environment but are held by the restraints of their tradition. When four of them do break these restraints, boldly leave the party and venture up the rock disaster strikes. It is almost too glib to suggest that this is the high point of the dramatic clash between the refinement of European culture and the uncouth power of the bush. There is an apt heightening of this refinement when Mademoiselle Portier refers to Miranda as a “Botticelli Angel”. Miranda’s beauty more than matches this image.
As a slight digression, the masterly visual and sound track handling of these mountain-disappearance scenes must be mentioned. Almost all the time the rock fills the frame. There is a predominance of low angle shots which put the rock against a blue sky, or high angles looking down into narrow clefts. This concentrates the drama and tension. One of the few longer shots connects us back to the picnic group as Marilyn philosophises about the purpose of the ant-like figures below.
The music is superbly constructive in the film adding cultural information as well as mood. The sinister mysterious events on the rock are given a powerful sound symbolism by a deep tuneless organ sound and an ethereal, almost other worldly theme played on flute de pan. At other times there is a deep sound like rushing wind that heralds or accompanies dire events.
One of the most effective moments, in terms of this attempted interpretation, is the meeting of Michael and Albert. Michael, rather bored, wanders off from his impossibly stuffy uncle and aunt and wanders across to the man servant, Albert. Michael is immaculately dressed in fine leather riding boots, perfectly fitting breeches, well cut jacket, tie and restrained top hat. Albert most notably wears a floppy open waistcoat, collar buttoned up, but no tie, and a grossly incongruous top hat. The two face each other for a long moment and Albert utters in startling strine, “’Ows It Goin”. Albert is thus dramatically introduced as the symbol of the “independent Australian Briton”. He is tough, uncouth, faintly contemptuous of the mannerisms and style of his English employers and, though willing to receive Michael’s offers of friendship, is puzzled by his delicacy and restraint. Yet he does develop a real feeling for Michael and it is Albert’s strength and ability to handle the bush that is crucial in saving Michael and Irma.
Surely it is almost too obvious to see this relationship between Michael and Albert as symbolising the European-Australian clash in its fullest and most complex form. Full because the confrontation is before us for most of the film; complex because a number of subtle gradations of the clash are played out. As the two boys watch four girls pick their way across the stream and up the rock Albert observes that Miranda’s “legs go right up to her bum”, which colonial crudity affronts Michael’s sensitivities. On the other hand Albert bravely and tenaciously goes up the rock again immediately after bringing Michael down to search for the girl whose possible survival is indicated by the fringe of dress taken from Michael’s hand. And when he finds Irma he holds her to him in a moment of tender passion. This delicate touch of the meeting of the two ways is repeated and developed later when Irma, fully recovered, meets Albert while walking with Michael in the beautiful grounds of Colonel Fitzhubert’s home. Etiquette demands that she thank her deliverer, she moves towards him and there is an awkward pause before she says her few formal polite words. Albert makes no presumptions, he as it were, knows his place. Another figure of the complex contrapuntal style is played out between these two at the end of what seems to be a strangely exotic interlude. A very formal garden party is held on the edge of a lake in the Fitzhubert grounds. Everyone is dressed in formal clothes, delicate English skins are shaded by parasols and a marquee, movements are stilted and dignified. A string quartet plays the Mozart, Eine Kleine Natchmusik. The scene is almost too ludicrous unless it can be seen as emphasizing the nostalgic yearning for English/European traditions. But Michael leaves the party and finds, perhaps, a colonial refuge and a bottle of beer with Albert in the latter’s little garret room. Albert in no way criticises the garden party, in fact he has no part in it, (just as he had no part in the picnic at the Rock) but he is the epitome of colonial strength and passivity for Michael. Perhaps this is the escape from stuffy English formalism to freer colonial simplicity?
Towards the end Irma, rescued from the horror of the Rock, is to join her parents who are holidaying in Europe. Mrs. Appleyard, her English facade disturbed by Sara’s condition and revolt, breaks down in a drunken surge of nostalgia and she draws on the strength of a lost English husband and the joys of Bournemouth, “A delightful place. Nothing changes, ever”. The reaching back to England is further emphasized in this scene as the camera roves over the walls of the study picking up a large painting of Queen Victoria, a tiger painting and a typical, sentimental pair of girls lying romantically on a beautiful lawn.
The obvious weakness in this thesis is that it seems too obvious, too banal. What traditon can an Australian work of art draw upon if not British and European? If carefully analysed surely most works would reveal similar connections.
My point, however, is that the above evidence suggests that the structure of the film depends heavily upon the cultural clash, and that the devleopment of the theme is subtly and beautifully orchestrated.
I am far from suggesting that this is the only level of value and interest. There are many more. I merely feel that the historical one provides an alternative academic base for further enriching this extraordinarily lovely film.