Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
During a rural summer picnic, a few students and a teacher from an Australian girls' school vanish without a trace. Their absence frustrates and haunts the people left behind.
Three students and a school teacher disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, on Valentine's Day, 1900. The movie follows those that disappeared, and those that stayed behind, but it delights in the asking of questions, not the answering of them. Even though both the movie and the book it was based on claim to be inspired by real events, the story is completely fictional.
On Valentine's Day 1900, most of the small student body and staff of Appleyard College, a private girls' boarding school in Victoria State, Australia, are going on a day long picnic to nearby Hanging Rock. Two people who will not be going are Mrs. Appleyard, the school's owner and proprietress, and Sara, a student who is being punished for a situation outside of her control. Later that evening, the picnickers arrive back to the college later than expected minus four people: teacher Miss McCraw, and students Miranda, Irma and Marion, all of whom have gone missing. The three girls plus a tag-along student, Emily, went exploring up the rock, when Emily came rushing off the rock by herself in a frightened panic, with several cuts and bruises and her dress torn. By that time, no one had noticed that Miss McCraw had also gone missing. Emily cannot remember anything about the incident beyond seeing Miss McCraw off in the distance climbing up the rock when she herself was heading down. As the authorities go on an exhaustive search for the missing four, their disappearance elicits different reactions from people involved. Michael Fitzhubert, a young well off man, who, along with his valet Albert, saw the four girls climbing up the rock, and feels compelled to find them. Sara, who idolized Miranda, is quietly affected as she keeps several secrets about herself and what Miranda told her earlier that day. And Miss Appleyard, although concerned about the welfare of the missing four, seems more concerned about the possibly tarnished reputation of the school, to which her name is attached, and the affect the scandal may have on its viability.
Against the backdrop of a hot St. Valentine's Day in early-1900s Victoria, the stern Mrs Appleyard's girls from the strict Appleyard College prepare for a field trip to Hanging Rock--the majestic volcanic formation near Mount Macedon. Under the scorching sun, three students--Miranda, Marion, and Irma--receive permission to explore the rock only to go missing later that day, and what is even more disturbing, when a fourth girl, Edith, returns screaming, the school teacher, Miss McCraw, disappears without a trace. The four women seem to have vanished into thin air. What has truly happened in Hanging Rock's deep and sharp crevices?
- The film begins in a (fictional) English girls' school in the Australian bush on February 14, 1900. The school is headed by Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), an indomitable and unbending figure of authority. Her staff include the remote mathematics mistress Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray), said to have a 'masculine' intellect; the young and beautiful Mademoiselle de Portiers (Helen Morse) who teaches French and deportment, and the jittery Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child), who is anxious to please Mrs. Appleyard.
Amid lingering images of white-clad girls in whispering voices delighting in Valentine's cards, the character of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) and her friend and admirer, Sara (Margaret Nelson) are introduced. Miranda's circle of friends includes Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), Rosamund (Ingrid Mason). Sara's affection for Miranda clearly stems from a deep romantic crush. Another pupil, Edith (Christine Schuler) hovers on the edge of Miranda's circle, desperate for acceptance. Sara, an orphan who is a kind of charity pupil, is disliked by Mrs. Appleyard, and is not allowed to join the outing, ostensibly because she has not memorized an assigned poem. Miranda shows worry that Sara dotes on her too much in which she tells Sara that she "won't be here much longer" (suggesting a premonition of her disappearance). The party leaves leaving behind Mrs. Appleyard and Sara.
The girls ride to Hanging Rock, a 500-foot tall volcanic rock formation about 11 km northeast of the school. Mlle. de Portiers and Miss McCraw are the supervisors. Mr. Hussey drives the girls in his wagon on the trip to the formation. For some odd reason, everyone's timepiece and wristwatch stops at 12 noon when they arrive. Miranda cuts a cake in honor of St. Valentine and the party relaxes in the warm shade.
Marion asks permission to take Miranda and Irma for an excursion on the rock and is accompanied by Edith. Their departure is witnessed by a fascinated young Englishman who attempts to follow them, but soon breaks away. After a brief nap (or swoon) on a plateau, they get up, and seemingly under a spell, three of them advance as one toward an inner recess, witnessed by Edith, who cries out to them not to go. She screams and runs downward. One of the teachers, Miss McCraw, leaves the picnic unnoticed and begins to climb the rock.
Although the party was due back at about eight o'clock, it is 10:30 p.m. and after dark when Mr. Hussey's wagon arrives back at the school, where they tell Mrs. Appleyard about the mysterious disappearance. Edith remains hysterical and unable to explain what has transpired only that she saw Miss McCraw heading up toward the plateau without her skirt. The police investigation led by Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts) and Constable Jones (Garry McDonald) leads them to a young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) who was lunching at the rock with his family, his uncle Colonel Fitzhubert (Peter Collingwood) and Mrs. Fitzhubert (Olga Dickie). Michael, with Albert (John Jarratt), the Fitzhubert party's young local Australian valet, spent part of the lunch watching the picnic, but offer no clues in the investigation. Sara is devastated, but habitually treated coldly as the orphan she is by the teachers and students alike.
The nearby town of Woodend quickly becomes restless as news of the disappearance spreads. The townsfolk are angry, demanding answers. Michael, who becomes obsessed with finding Miranda, gets Albert to accompany him to the Rock for another search after another search turned up nothing. The next morning, Albert travels up to the rock and finds a nearly delirious Michael whom he helps back down to the ground. Albert follows Michael's trail and discovers Irma, unconscious but unharmed.
At the Fitzhubert home where Irma is treated for dehydration and exposure, she tells the police investigator that she has no memory of what happened on the rock, or of the fate of her companions. The servants note to themselves that her corset has gone missing.
During a walk in the woods with Irma, Michael tells her that he's still obsessed with finding Miranda, but she still cannot remember anything about that day. Soon, both Albert and Michael begin to have terrible nightmares about a great evil that lurks at Hanging Rock. They continue to remain miserable over the three remaining disappearances.
A kind of quiet mass hysteria consumes the school. Lessons seem to proceed with the usual tight order and control, but as the days pass and the missing women are not found, parents notify Mrs. Appleyard that they will be withdrawing their daughters from the school. During gym class, Irma stops by, dressed from head to foot in elegant red; her parents are taking her to Europe. The girls at first greet her with silence, then begin screaming frantically that she must tell them what happened, and physically attack her. Mlle. de Poitiers has to pull them off, and Irma runs away. Sara is discovered tied to the wall "to correct her posture". Miss Lumley gives notice that she is quitting.
Mrs. Appleyard takes to drink and is more abusive than ever toward Sara, first telling her that her guardian has not paid her tuition and she must be sent to an institution, then lying to the remaining staff that Sara's guardian has taken her away overnight.
The next morning, Sara's body is found in the greenhouse by Mr. Whitehead, the school's gardener. She apparently jumped or was pushed from her second floor bedroom window. When the gardener rushes into Mrs. Appleyard's office, she greets him with a calm stare; she is already dressed in full mourning with her things packed. Elsewhere, Albert tells Michael that he had a dream that his orphan sister came to see him in his dreams. Sara is revealed to be Albert's sister.
Epilogue. A voice-over narrator details that after Sara's dead body was discovered, Mrs. Appleyard disappeared before the police could question her about the circumstances surrounding Sara's death. A few days later, Mrs. Appleyard's body was found beneath Hanging Rock -- apparently she went there and jumped off a ledge to her death. No one else was ever discovered there.