Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Don’t forget the coleslaw.

The Film: The neo-Victorian critique of society’s suppression of female sexuality

The Potable: Four glasses of eggnog, two with nutmeg, two without

In some ways, Peter Weir’s 1975 film fits into a grand tradition of English period pieces set before the Great War. The film’s aesthetics are clear from the beginning, and belong in a category with classics like A Room With a View, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Russian Ark, Jane Eyre, and Barry Lyndon. The costumes, the mannerisms, the ballrooms. If you’ve fallen asleep during one you’ve seen them all. It is, I confess, a genre I find inescapably boring.

But Picnic at Hanging Rock has a few tricks up its sleeve. For one, it’s not an English period drama at all, instead set in the eternally ancient realm of Australia, a far-flung corner of Queen Victoria’s empire that does it’s best to maintain a sense of Old World etiquette. Tea may be served in the dining room, pinkies out, but with the unyielding dread that beyond the walls of civilization lies a hostile continent. Nature remains unexplored, unconquered. Enormous spiders, dingos, and Crocodile Dundee, the world’s most infamous crocodile.

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One fateful St. Patrick’s Day in 1900, the poncy gals of PS 318 decide to brave this wild. On the cusp of womanhood, tight-ass chaperone in tow, they venture out to Hanging Rock. No, this is not the giant red Ayers Rock your freshman roommate set as his screensaver, but a rather less impressive geologic formation roughly 1,500 miles away. PS 318 could not afford the gas, and Weir could not secure the permits, so here we are. Still, Hanging Rock does hold a certain kind of draw. Some would call it mysterious, though I – and maybe this is the booze talking – would call it prehistorically sexual.

I’m no geologist, but this may be the most carnal clump of metamorphic rock in the Eastern Hemisphere. One bawdy, naughty boulder.

What does it mean, then, when three of the girls go missing? The pretty blonde ingénue leads a gang of four into the crags of the outcropping, and they drift further and further from the picnic site. Scarves and hats are abandoned as they snag against the canyon wall. The girls shed their shoes and socks, bare feet better for climbing. Three vanish, one returns, only to find the chaperone swinging her blouse above her head like this is suddenly Picnic at Porky’s.

What does it mean that as a search ensues, the film shifts part of its focus to Sara, another girl back at PS 318? Always the odd girl out, she is constantly bullied, even by her teacher. While all the other girls wear designer white slippers, Sara shows up for class one day in a pair of New Balance dad sneakers. Unacceptable even in gym, she never hears the end of it, and ultimately takes her own life in the school greenhouse. Even if the missing girls turn up, PS 318 will likely lose its accreditation. It’s been a bad quarter.

The film has its faults. The foodie in me was disappointed to find there were no artful closeups of the ambrosia salad. The Criterion edition – despite costing upwards of $40 – does not include a mimosa recipe. Perhaps most egregiously, the end credits fail to make use of the Kinks’ conveniently titled “Australia.”

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, and it’s no secret that book readers are often disappointed with cinematic adaptations. Fans of the graphic novel Watchmen, for instance, maintain a number of grievances with Zack Snyder’s 2009 interpretation. Perhaps chief among the complaints is the film’s ending, which depicts a New York City destroyed by an energy weapon in lieu of the graphic novel’s giant interdimensional space octopus.

Weir leaves his film’s central mystery ambiguous, but book readers will doubtless be disappointed to see that Lindsay’s “secret” final chapter was not depicted. In it, the missing girls are revealed to have entered a hidden tear in spacetime, pulled in by the tentacles of a giant interdimensional space octopus.

But these flaws are minor. In the grand pantheon of period dramas, Picnic at Hanging Rock may seem like an odd fit, but it certainly manages to serve up some interesting – and unique! – potato salad.

Verdict: 3 ½ shrimp on the barbie

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