It can be hard to make a story about an unexplained mystery feel dramatically satisfying, yet Peter Weir’s haunting, mesmerising, and utterly singular early film manages just that. It tells of the strange disappearance of three private schoolgirls and their teacher on a Valentine’s Day in 1900, during a day out at the Hanging Rock in Macedon Ranges, and the reverberating impact it has on the school and the local community.
I’ve been to the Hanging Rock myself on a day trip from Melbourne, and it’s a striking natural attraction, but here it becomes a hypnotic place infused with the eerie menace and dark beauty, and the setting of the film’s most memorable moments. I’ve never seen the Australian bush of Victoria look so enchanting onscreen – there are times when there’s almost a painterly quality to it. The images of the Victorian girls, so delicate in their long white dresses with frills and lace galore, make the landscape seem even more otherworldly and strange – they move in it as if they were ghosts. The day is uneventful until four of the girls decide to leave the picnic grounds and venture higher up among the rock formations. The last time Edith, the nerdy and somewhat whiny member of the group, sees her companions, they disappear into a crevice in an unnervingly silent, robotic manner, as if under a spell. It’s a spooky, surreal moment, which is kinda punctured for me with Edith’s piercing scream that comes off as rather cheesy… but nevermind, I can forgive one dated moment.
The rest of the film deals with the repercussions of the incident and the effect it has on the various people involved. There’s Mrs. Appleyard, the rather chilly yet tormented headmistress of the college (whose sleek and elaborate hairdo I couldn’t stop staring at) and a young Englishman and his Australian valet who glimpsed the girls as they made their way up the rock. The most tragic character is Sara, an intense rebellious girl with a doomed aura about her, who stays behind at the school during the picnic and who is clearly in love with Miranda, one of the missing girls described by her French teacher as a Boticelli angel for her ethereal luminous beauty. Though never made explicit, there’s an undercurrent of violence and sexuality to the story, with the small but sinister unexplained details like a lost corset. That the film tantalises the viewer with a haunting unsolved mystery is what ultimately gives the movie its power – if there was an explanation this would simply be a normal whodunit, although with a superb sense of atmosphere helped by the eerie panpipes. By the way, I couldn’t resist looking up the “solution” provided by the author of the original book in a previously unpublished chapter, and it was so unsatisfying I immediately dismissed it from my mind as Not Canon.