Picnic Under Capricorn

This brief article/interview was done after the release of "Picnic At Hanging Rock" by Jan Dawson for the Spring '76 Issue of "Sight & Sound".

"Australian books tend to concentrate on the idea of being an Australian, on fitting into your environment, on what the country means to you, on the crisis of European man trying to fit into an alien environment at the bottom of the world... And these things have never interested me at all."

The speaker is Peter Weir, at 31 a veteran of the former Commonwealth Film Unit who is currently being hailed as the white hope of the renascent Australian film industry. Although his first feature, The Cars That Ate Paris, enjoyed a modest critical success in Europe, it was greeted at home with a mixture of critical hostility and public indifference. "Curiously, it wasn't attacked for putting across an unflattering image of Australia: I sensed that some of the film's detractors would have liked it to be more vicious... They objected to it essentially on the grounds that it belonged to no genre. They found it impure, jumbled, confused. They couldn't see that perhaps the film was operating inside its own category." At any rate, Cars sank without trace shortly after its Australian release, and has yet to recover its costs - a meagre $(Aus) 200,000.

It is Peter Weir's second feature, Picnic At Hanging Rock, that is causing the excitement. Not only has it been eulogised by the Australian press (the more surprising since, like Cars, it belongs to no established category of film); it has also joined Alvin Purple and Barry Mackenzie in recovering its promotion and production costs (around half a million dollars) in the home market alone, and is still running in the capital cities. The film has been particularly acclaimed for its lyrical photography (by Russell Boyd), and there's speculation that it will win Australia a place in the main competition at Cannes.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is adapted from a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. Written in her mid-sixties and her only work of fiction, it has provoked the belief that it's based on a true, but undocumented incident. The subject has rapidly worked its way into the national folklore, and the mystery surrounding the mystery has lent valuable support to the film's publicity campaign.

"On St. Valentine's Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls went on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Some were never to return..." That much the advertisements reveal. The school in question is run by the widowed Mrs. Appleyard, a Bournemouth expatriate, iron-corseted and iron-gloved; the Hanging Rock is an extraordinary volcanic formation on the slopes of Mount Macedon, on the edge of the Victorian bush; and the missing persons are a mathematics teacher and two girls, who disappear without a trace during a picnic. (A third girl is found a week later, but remembers nothing. Rumours of rape, murder, abduction persist, despite a baffling lack of evidence. Suspicion lingers briefly on the visiting young Englishman (Dominic Guard) who was the last to glimpse the girls alive. No explanation is ever found, but the tragedy continues to affect its peripheral characters, materially and spiritually, for the rest of their natural lifetimes. The school goes into financial decline; the staff leave or meet violent deaths; one pupil commits suicide. The Englishman remains faithful to the memory of a girl (Anne Lambert) glimpsed on the Rock...

I asked Peter Weir if he'd been hesitant about filming a mystery without a solution. "My only worry was whether an audience would accept such an outrageous idea. Personally, I always found it the most satisfying and fascinating aspect of the film. I usually find endings disappointing: they're totally unnatural. You are creating life on the screen, and life doesn't have endings. It's always moving on to something else and there are always unexplained elements."

"What I attempted, somewhere towards the middle of the film, was gently to shift emphasis off the mystery element which had been building in the first half and to develop the oppressive atmosphere of something which has no solution: to bring out a tension and claustrophobia in the locations and the relationships. We worked very hard at creating an hallucinatory mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotise the audience away from the possibility of solutions... There are, after all, things within our own minds about which we know far less than about disappearances at Hanging Rock. And it's within a lot of those silences that I tell my side of the story."

Weir freely admits that he's always been more interested in atmosphere than character, and insists that he works from instinct rather than `premeditation'. But his instinct prompted him, and his screenwriter Cliff Green, to at least one premeditated shift of emphasis. Although Joan Lindsay's novel contains hints of the Rock as another time zone, its style combines the omniscient condescension of an Agatha Christie (characters neatly slotted into defined social stations and good-humoured servants kept above suspicion) with a streak of purple pantheism. She stresses the repressiveness of Victorian morality and `the smouldering passions banked down under the weight of grey disciplines'. Weir's school contains more lyrical sunlight than lurking shadows - its atmosphere perhaps further lightened when illness prevented Vivien Merchant filling the role of the headmistress, now played by Rachel Roberts - and he emphasises instead the books timeless theme: "The tragedy had its beginnings on St. Valentine's Day. Traditionally it's the day of the pairing of birds. And from the moment the day begins, the story is about the failure of the birds to pair and connections to be made."

"I could have placed more emphasis on the outpost of Empire in the bush, the invaders in an alien landscape, the repressive nature of this little piece of Empire; but as the atmosphere resulting from the disappearances became my central interest, these themes disappeared from view... Yes, you could see them, as elements in all my films," (including Homesdale, an experimental 50-minutes about a lethal holiday camp for jaded city folk) "though I'm only conscious of one recurring theme. I find people in isolated situations fascinating. Obvious things - long boat voyages and waiting rooms and lifts - unfailingly intrigue me because people reveal... all the things that aren't being said. Not so much in their relationships as in their unconscious. And I like situations where I can get these things out quickly. Nature isn't consciously a theme with me either. It's just that, in the most practical way, I prefer to make films away from the city. It's not that the wide open spaces open me up but that I find them intensely claustrophobic."

"My next film? I think it's jinxed to talk about it... I'm working on a screenplay. A contemporary story about a man who believes pre-Incan craft landed in this country around the sixth century. He goes further than that. He believes they built a city here, which he's determined to find. And..." Respectful of the jinx, the tape obligingly runs out.