Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
At about the halfway point, I realized that Picnic at Hanging Rock would probably be a book Iíd enjoy, but as a film, I found it left a lot to be desired. While the Joan Lindsay novel would have the space to flesh out the details as well as rely on prose to establish a more ambiguous tone, the film fails to convey that level of nuance.
Thereís still something to be said for the creepy story. During the titular picnic, three girls and a teacher go missing at Hanging Rock, leaving the rest of the class in a state of panic. As the police and outlying community begin the search, it becomes clear that the details around the case donít add up and that there are huge gaps that donít make any sense.
Part of the problem is that the story exists in a languid and slowly-moving world which means that as intriguing and mysterious as these circumstances are, it never quite gets up to the speed where the audience left with the gears spinning in their head, trying to make sense of the clues or fully immersed in the world of the mystery. Yes, itís still intriguing and curious, but the whole experience is passive, making the mystery more of an oddity than anything else.
The latter section of the film does become more intriguing and there is something to be said for how the film builds mood around sound and editing as opposed to eerie visuals or dark lighting. Things are just a bit off, and that helps enhance that sense of unease that permeate the entire mystery. Thereís always something missing, something everyone is looking for but never able to find.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd should be given some credit for establishing this mood, but he seems to be much better at working with the interiors of the school where he has more direct control and precision of lighting and framing. The opening minutes of the film are easily the best looking, making everything afterwards pale in comparison. Once out on the picnic, the film is less compelling to watch.
In this regard, even though the film is effective, it is a letdown. Thereís a lot of inconsistency in terms of how good the filmmaking is. Certain sections wane in a place of placid creativity, while others come across as tightly constructed. This means from sequence to sequence, or sometimes even shot to shot, thereís a widely different quality of craft and skill.
On some level, it isnít that big a deal, but a lot of the more languishing moments of the film become visual white space. Itís almost numbingly dull, a static, soft sort of creativity that is mildly indifferent to whatever it is capturing.
Itís a bit disappointing to realize this is one of Peter Weirís early films. Given how engaging and enthralled he seems to be with his subjects in his films from the Ď80s and Ď90s, this ambivalent distance is uncharacteristic and the Peter Weir who made The Truman Show and Fearless should be able to approach this story with the same level of enthusiasm and engagement. Instead, Picnic at Hanging Rock spends too much time doing far too little.