Picnic at Hanging Rock

A Review by Tony Whitaker

WARNING - this review is a movie SPOILER. If you have any desire whatsoever to watch the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock , DO NOT READ PAST THE DOTTED LINE UNTIL YOU HAVE SEEN IT AT LEAST ONCE.


The movie opens with the following words spoken by Miranda, the central character of the story:

" What we see and what we seem is but a dream - a dream within a dream. "

That, of course, is from Edgar Allen Poe's poem:

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


The presentation of Poe's words at the opening of the movie indicates that they represent the paramount theme of the story. Picnic at Hanging Rock reveals to the viewer why it is true that the world as we see it is a dream within a dream.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . THE DOTTED LINE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As is often true in our real-life experiences, the viewer leaves Picnic at Hanging Rock knowing many details about what happened. In fact, the viewer leaves knowing much more than he or she would about a real experience. Our knowledge of so many facts leads us to believe we know what happened - or what probably happened - until we start thinking harder. Peoples' "solutions" to the mystery range from " the missing girls were abducted by a flying saucer " to " they were part of a lesbian cult and were victims of a human sacrifice ". While watching the movie for the first time, I came up with two "solutions". Until the very end of the movie, I thought " the girls decided there at the top of the rock that their experience of freedom was so good, they weren't going back to the college ". Then, at the very end, when Mrs Appleyard's face fills the screen much like Norman Bates' in Psycho, I thought " oh - I get it - Mrs Appleyard has been killing the students who can't pay ".

How can there be so many completely different ideas about the same experience when so many facts are known? The answer is that our imperfect and limited minds naturally fill with imagination any gaps in our ability to understand. We create a dream to complete the incomplete. Because our knowledge of any experience is incomplete, all our ideas and thoughts are composed partially of dream. Only God knows everything. The dreams we create are very personal. They may be our hopes. They may be our fears. The process of creating these dreams is so natural and reflexive, effort is required to demystify our own thoughts. We usually don't bother exerting this effort. We carry on in our minds believing we "know". Picnic at Hanging Rock , though, presents us with something unusual for for a movie - an unsolved mystery. This is disconcerting because we are used to movies ending with all mysteries tidily solved. "This can't be" we say to ourselves. "There must be something I missed - there must be a findable solution". We are lured into the process of exerting effort to distinguish the facts we know about the movie from fantasies we indulged in while watching it. This requires watching the movie again, this time paying very close attention to every detail in an attempt to find the missing clues. Of course, this only uncovers more mysteries and expands the number of possible "solutions". After thinking, and thinking, and thinking about every detail your mind can recover from the experience of watching Picnic at Hanging Rock , it finally dawns on you that there is no solution. We just don't know enough. As in real-life, we have only our hopes and dreams to fill in the unknowable gaps. As the gardener tells Tom, "there's some questions got answers - some haven't".

So that explains why what we see and seem is a dream. Why is it a dream within a dream? The most obvious answer is that the world is God's dream in which we have our dreams. Another possible answer is that the encompassing dream is the collective human dream created by individual minds interacting with one another. The presence of a communal dream is evident in Picnic at Hanging Rock in the nearly universal fear among the people that the girls were raped and murdered. That's the first idea expressed by Constable Bumpher's wife who can only hint that people are talking about "it" - "Not just Gossip." she says. "People have - - - theories. It couldn't be local. No one around here would do a thing like that.". It's the first idea that comes to Mrs Appleyard's mind when she strains to speak the words "She hadn't been - - - molested?". The doctor can't answer the question without using a euphemism that everyone seems to understand - "No, no. Nothing like that. I have examined her. She is quite intact.". When they discover that Edith saw Miss McCraw running up the hill with her skirt off just before the disappearance, Miss De Poitiers and Constable Bumpher react as if that's some great revelation. They immediately go get a sample of Miranda's clothing for the blood hounds, and men begin dragging a nearby lake for bodies. Late in the Movie, Mrs Appleyard says of Miss McCraw "How could she allow herself to be spirited away? Lost. Raped. Murdered in cold blood like a silly shoolgirl.". How can so many people arrive at the same idea despite the fact that no evidence exists to support it? Edith was examined and found to be "intact". The doctor examines Irma and pronounces that she is also "intact". No suspects are found that might have done this. A single girl would be vulnerable, but four of them being followed their teacher? The reason so many people arrive at this irrational conclusion is that they are utilizing their communal dream to fill in a gap, a dream rooted in the nearly universal fear and repression of sexuality evident in their community. It's the first dream to enter their minds because it is part of the dream that is most tormenting them, the dream they most desperately want to demystify and replace with truth. It is the communal dream inculcated in them that their greatest desires should somehow be linked with their deepest fears.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is often classified as a "horror" movie. It isn't. It's a transcendental movie. It's a hopeful movie. It's a comforting answer to Edgar Allen Poe's despair. Like Poe, we see the characters of the movie in turmoil because of things they don't know and can't know. Periodically, though, a break is taken to show them against the backdrop of nature - some of the most beautiful natural shots you'll ever see. While these shots are shown, a soothing pan flute hymn plays. It's the voice of God. The implication is that God speaks to us through the beauty of nature. Like a distraught pet being comforted by its owner, we can't understand what He's saying, but His message is clear - "relax - everything's going to be OK ". In perhaps the most important scene of the movie, Michael, the hero, sees a vision of Miranda in the shadows near a pool. He turns away for a moment, looks back - and she's gone. In her place, there's a swan swimming in the pool. Michael watches the swan fly away and then looks back at the pool to see drops of water dripping from reeds into it like grains from an hour glass - a temporary, fading reminder that the swan used to be there. The message is clear if not blatant. Miranda is like the swan. Although she is no longer in sight, no longer accessible, she is not destroyed. Like the swan, she has just been relocated. Somehow, beyond the ability of our feeble minds to understand, the essence of Miranda has been preserved. The same is true of Sarah. Although it appears she tragically took her own life largely because of the communal dream being forced upon her, she appears afterwards to her brother in his dream and speaks to him. She has also been preserved.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an exercise for the imagination. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that's 90% complete, but the missing 10% is essential. Is there a "most likely" solution to the mystery. Yes, there is, and it stares you in the face. It's in the title - "Hanging Rock". What is the rock hanging from? Perhaps a thread? A hanging rock is likely to fall and hurt someone, isn't it? But the mind yearns for a more imaginative solution than that.