Movie Review: “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

by Leonora Rexhi

The Australian movie, ”Picnic at Hanging Rock”, is based on the novel under the same name, which was written by Joan Lindsay. The film was released in 1975.

1900, Appleyard College, Victoria, Australia. On Valentine’s Day, the students from the girls’ boarding school set off with their teachers for an excursion at Hanging Rock. Instead of staying in the group like the rest of the students, four girls decide to go to the top of Hanging Rock and begin to climb the branching path. Once there, they lie down in the sun and suddenly walk behind a rock as if in a trance. One of the students, Edith, is looking for the three girls. Since they do not respond to any calls and seem to have disappeared without a trace, Edith runs back to the group in tears and reports what has happened. There, she also finds out that a teacher has disappeared with them. She remembers with difficulty, but what she does know is that all of them were heading towards the top of Hanging Rock.

I did not know what to expect at first. But quickly the film captivated me, even if I must admit that I had a hard time understanding everything correctly at times. This was the first Australian movie I have seen, so it was a bit tricky to completely understand the Australian English right away.

I particularly liked the structure of the film, the costumes, the locations and also the music. The typical Australian setting, the quietness in some scenes and the costumes of the girls, reminiscent of the Victorian era, impressed me greatly.

The movie is classified in the horror and mystery genre, whereas I personally consider the mystery genre to be more appropriate. I did not perceive the movie as a horror movie, even though some parts, like the images of the girls with the wounds on their heads and the blood on their bodies and clothes, were a bit ”brutal”. The mysteriousness runs through the whole movie from the beginning. What I particularly liked is that even at the end (spoiler!) the mystery of Hanging Rock could not be solved, and the characters remained missing. 

Nevertheless, I find that the movie did drag on a bit towards the end. For my taste, some scenes perhaps could have been shortened a bit, because in thrilling scenes often followed long-winded passages, which took the tension away.

After watching the movie, I searched a bit on the internet and found out that it has often been discussed whether the movie is based on a true story. There are many who are unsure, and especially Joan Lindsay herself kept silent about it during her lifetime and also hinted at this in the novel in the preface that she wants to leave this decision to the readers (Köster n.p.). Moreover, there are said to be no reports of missing girls at Hanging Rock in Australian police files, and there is even some speculation about whether it may have been aliens who made the girls disappear.

In addition, I found out that the topic of colonization is addressed in the movie. This becomes clear, for example, in the scene where the girls set off for Hanging Rock, even though they are told how dangerous this is. This controlled relationship ”to the natural world represents underlying colonialist anxieties about the power of nature”. The author suggests that ”repression is a byproduct if colonialism” (Lindsay). This is made clear in the movie, showing the girls who have to wear hats, gloves, long dresses, and corsets even in the blazing sun. They are controlled by their teachers/principals non-stop in what they do. It is important to mention here that the way the girls are treated in the film is not at all comparable to what the Aboriginal Australians had to experience. The author nevertheless uses this to highlight that ”colonialism is a brutal and hungry force which requires not just the oppression of those it supplants, but the repression of those it claims to benefit, in order to function” (Lindsay n.p.).

All in all, ”Picnic at Hanging Rock” is a movie worth watching. It is very multi-faceted, and what I found particularly good is that it can be viewed for free on Youtube at any time. In addition, you can read the book about it and if you cannot get enough of Picnic at Hanging Rock also watch the series that was released in 2018!


Elements of Time in Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

this blogpost includes spoilers of the novel and its adaptations

An uncanny premise

Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1967) is a pseudo-historical Gothic Horror novel which was followed by its famous movie adaptation “The Day of Saint Valentine” in 1975. The novel begins with Lindsay’s fateful remark that it would be up to the reader to decide whether or not the story to be told is completely fictious, or utterly true.

            Appleyard College is a school in Australian Victoria in the year 1900, where upper-class girls are meant to be raised to eligible women of society. After the students and teachers venture off to have a picnic at the near rock formation known as the Hanging Rock, the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard receives dreadful news upon their return: Four of the students wandered off to the rock formation to explore it despite having been forbidden, and only one of them returned. At the same time, one of the teachers has disappeared into thin air. None of the women were found in several search parties, until one day, one of the students can be rescued – but neither her nor her fellow student who returned from the Hanging Rock are able to remember anything that happened in the outback.

            In the aftermath of the incident, many of the residents at Appleyard College are taken back home by their worried parents, and a few, including the headmistress, meet their grim and untimely fates…A year later, the college burns to the ground in a terrible bush fire, but even a decade later, the missing girls still haven’t been found.

Passing and conception of time within the story and its role as a stylistic element

Time takes up an intricate task in the telling of Lindsay’s novel. Not only does it create an air of mystery, impatience, and uncanniness within the plot itself, it is also utilized as a stylistic feature in form of slowing down and speeding up the perceived pace of the story. To shorten this analysis to a length appropriate for the format of a blog post, the focus will lay on the events up until a few days after the vanishing. 

            Mrs. Appleyard’s college is a place where strict manners and the abiding to set appointments is expected. The different steps of the day, from breakfast to bedtime, are organized by the clock (e.g. “I shall expect you back […] at about eight o’clock […].”, p.7; “As it was still only eleven o’clock […].”, p.11) and time is generally perceived in a very measurable manner, as time specifications are used often (e.g. “[…] about an hour from now […]”, p.18; “[…] only a few minutes ago […]”, p.19). The journey to the picnic grounds itself seems to take forever: There are hardly any indications of the time that is passing, only elaborate descriptions of the surrounding outback, and the entire ride seems stretched by that to the extent that it almost appears to occur in real time (p.8-14). In a similar way, the stay at the grounds appears lengthy, too. The language draws a picture of a warm summer day, the girls scattered across the lawn all drowsy and lazy, almost as if time stood still (pp.16f) when suddenly, it turns out time had stood still – in form of everybody’s watches, that is: at 12pm sharp, Mr. Hussey the driver’s watch stops ticking, as well as one of the teacher’s, which had “Never stopped before” (p.18). From that moment on, the travelling shadow of the Hanging Rock becomes the only measure of time, indicating how it starts to cast its spell and suck the picnic party in. 

            There are several instances throughout the opening of the novel where the future is being teased and events are being foreshadowed. One particular passage even shifts the narrative perspective for a brief moment: When one of the students, Miranda, calls back to her fellow boarder Edith on the way to the rock formation, it is referred to how Michael witnesses this and later thinks back to it (p.25), evoking the interpretation that something terrible happens between these two timelines which makes this mundane sight somehow more important. In fact, this will turn out to be the last time somebody saw the group of girls together, but all characters are unsuspecting of this truth then. At the picnic grounds, the girls and their supervisors suddenly lose the devices to measure time properly, yet they try to stick to their schedule (compare again pp.18f). Meanwhile, the girls venturing off into the outback experience something similar: At first, they, too, refer to passing of time in form of minutes, and Miranda keeps reminding the others about how they had to get back soon (e.g. p.28). But at some point of going deeper into the rock formation, their conception of time seems to vanish, the loss of a sense of time even increased by them falling asleep (p.31), as do their inhibitions (p.28). The atmosphere shifts to one that is detached from the order of society and that is almost ethereal, and the girls seem to lose touch, taking off their shoes and dancing on the rocks (p.30). It is then that time seems to slow down, caught in a mysterious haze, until Edith – the only one who has not become a victim of whatever it is that bewitches her friends – snaps and hastily returns to the picnic grounds (p.32). From the later police report of Mr. Hussey, it becomes apparent that Edith’s disruptive reaction triggers time to speed up when panic breaks lose (p.40). As Mr. Hussey also states in his account that by the time they started searching for the girls, they had no way of telling the time at all anymore (p.41) – the Hanging Rock had begun its witching hour. 

            As the perspective switches to the impatient Mrs. Appleyard waiting for her staff and students to return, the perceived time stands still. Both the headmistress and the readers are anxious to know what is going on, fearing something tragic has happened (p.37). The woman creates an unbearable atmosphere of impatience, checking the clock a dozen times and straining to hear a nearing carriage (p.36). Remembering that the days at Appleyard college are usually strictly time managed and organized, everything seems to fall out of place, strengthening the assumption that bad news ought to be expected. 

After that, everything is in a mess, reality appears warped and time not linear: “For the inmates of Appleyard College, Sunday the fifteenth of February was a day of nightmare indecision: half dream, half reality […].” (p.43) The report on the happenings of Sunday the 15th are rather lengthy (pp.43-47), similar to the ride to the picnic grounds. Monday, the college apparently tries to go back to how things were before (“Meals were served with their customary clockwork precision, but only a few of the usually ravenous young women […] did more than trifle with the mutton and apple pie.”, p.47), but the lives of everyone touched by the incident are changed. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are overloaded with more dates, time specifications, and detailed conversations with witnesses, so that it appears as if time had to have slowed down in order to encompass so many little things taking place, and the 3 days after the vanishing of the girls and their teacher seem like the longest ones in history (pp.43-59), especially to those who are left with the mystery.

Final thoughts

Joan Lindsay is incredibly skilled in utilizing time for her storytelling. Elements like clocks and time telling are used to signify a contrast between the mundanity of the real world, and the bewitching aura that encases the Hanging Rock. A mix of overly detailed reports of what is happening and what is said stretch the perceived time in the novel, while rapid time jumps and changes of behavior like Edith’s speed it up, to the effect that Lindsay’s audience can feel the insufferableness that is the mystery of the students and their teacher who disappeared during their picnic at Hanging Rock.

Solutions to the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock in the “lost” chapter 18

Picnic at Hanging Rock describes an unsolved mystery that people have been fascinated by since it was published. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel Joan Lindsay claims “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves”. With this she leaves open the possibility that the vanishing of the girls could actually have happened, skillfully leaving the reader with a fascination of a real mystery that is left for them to be solved. But how come the captivation of this mystery spread all across Australia and even internationally? Dr. Julia Shaw, a research associate at University college London and an expert on criminal psychology says that “we like true crime because it’s something we can talk about as a group. We can gossip, speculate, and be afraid or excited together.” Perhaps this is the reason that there are so many theories about what happened to the girls in the end and why people are drawn to the story.

girl in a white Victorian dress, with a red ribbon in her hair, sitting on brownish grass, eating strawberries
image by Anika Klose

With this in mind it makes sense that Lindsay’s publishers stopped her from including chapter 18 in the final version of the novel, not wanting the readers to know what really happened and thereby creating a long-lasting interaction with the text. But Lindsay decided that the chapter should be published after all and many more interpretations and possible solutions came to light. And while many of them seem absurd or unfitting, it is especially worth to at least acknowledge them considering Lindsay changed the author’s note after having published the novel to “fact or fiction or both” (Taylor 4). It seems in her eyes the explanation has no need to be completely reasonable. But this also opens up a lot of space for new propositions.

While it would fill many pages to consider every possibility, I would like to offer a quick but somewhat broad range of solutions based on chapter 18. The Secret of Hanging Rock includes a commentary by Yvonne Rousseau and an interpretation by Mudrooroo aside from chapter 18 itself. Mudrooroo puts forward one of my favorite interpretations that I have considered so far, which is alien abduction. And as out of place as it may seem I rather think that the fact that it somewhat fits the narrative of the last chapter, shows how even the most absurd can make sense in the context. Mudrooroo argues that the monolith at which the girls had suddenly fallen asleep resembles the way many have described an UFO in an oval shape. When Miss McCraw appears, they do not recognize her, which may be because she herself is an alien as her “long-boned torso was flattening itself out on the ground beside the hole, deliberately forming itself to the needs of a creature to creep and burrow under the earth” (Lindsay 18). The girls act dazed and entranced and observe “a hole in space” (17), which Mudrooroo argues may be the entrance to a spaceship.

Rousseau proposes multiple solutions, one of which is an Aboriginal supernatural interpretation. Using “the Dreaming”, she suggests that Miranda and Marion represent human forms of Australian Ancestors. We learn that “they fell asleep so deep that a lizard darted out from under a rock and lay without fear in the hollow of Marion’s outflung arm, while several beetles in bronze armour made a leisurely tour of Miranda’s yellow head” (Lindsay 14). This would mean that for Marion lizards are what she represents and for Miranda it is the beetles. This point of view would also explain why Irma is the only one to come back from the Rock, because she has “little hands, soft and white” (Lindsay 19), perhaps too foreign to have a spiritual connection.

Rousseau’s other explanation has to do with dimensions of time, and she states that to her, the girls, except for Irma, have died after climbing up the mountain. She sets up three regions. One is our world, the second is where Edith left the Rock and Miss McCraw cannot be recognized (Time One), and the third is a light, into which they pass in the end (Time Two). She also explains that after their death, they are in Time Two, and not in our world anymore. In the beginning of chapter 18 Lindsay writes “To the four people on the Rock it is always acted out in the tepid twilight of a present without a past” (13). To Rousseau this past that they do not have is their existence in a physical sense. They have left the physical world and cannot be found. For this theory she also has a reason why Irma is excluded. Since Marion and Miss McCraw are skilled mathematicians and Miranda is philosophically inclined, Irma would have the most problems comprehending a complex plane of existence.

To me a solution that revolves around different perceptions of time makes a lot of sense. Joan Lindsay herself once said that she never wore a watch, because she said they stopped all the time. Similarly, the watches at the picnic also stop. But also, looking at the dates in the novel we can see that the picnic is said to be on a Saturday, even though it should be a Wednesday. Furthermore, their corsets hang in the air after they tried to throw them down the Rock, suggesting that they are stuck in time.

I personally also favor a feminist view of the novel in which the girls run away because they would not submit to what society expected from them. They plan to leave and even throw away their clothing, but especially their corsets, which so nicely stand as a metaphor for their entrapment, having to give in to society’s expectations of getting married soon after finishing school, which they were all close to doing. The Rock stands as a symbol for freedom, because it is far beyond and separate to the English society. Taking off their corsets “a delightful coolness and freedom set in” (Lindsay 15).  They decide that risking their lives on Hanging Rock to gain some freedom is better than being forced into a life they never wanted. Only Irma changes her mind and is later to be rescued, but she is also “the wealthiest student at the College” (Lindsay 12), and arguably the one able to make choices more freely.

A theme that we can see throughout the novel is its interconnectedness with nature. Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock illustrates the enchanting and mysterious character of the Australian landscape. It is a fascination to the extend of the sublime. Especially when the girls are on the top of Hanging Rock, seeing the picnickers from above as “a lot of busy little ants”, and the monolith “pulling, like a tide” (Lindsay 14). Up on the mountain “the whole air was clamorous with microscopic life” (15). As a contrast the English picnickers sit far down beneath them as invaders in a strange landscape. Only Albert was able to save Irma from the Rock after Michael found, but barely made it out alive. From this perspective the Australian landscape entrances them so much that they become disoriented, get lost and never return, because they could not withstand the nature of Australia.

In the introduction to The Secret of Hanging Rock John Taylor says that “[Joan Lindsay’s] own account was that the story “just came to her” in stages as she lay awake at night, to be written at high speed the next day” (Taylor 4). They were not exactly dreams, but laying awake at night I would argue, close to them. All these possible interpretations can be backed up by evidence from the text and worked out much further than I did, to provide a short overview. Considering the dream-like origin of the story I would argue that the interpretations all have some truth to them. It is likely that Lindsay was influenced by many things in her life and her surroundings. That way, facts and fiction mixed into one new thing, making it impossible to find the one true solution. The decision to not have chapter 18 published was made so that the mystery would remain. But the chapter does not really give the reader concrete answers either. The mystery remains all the same. If anything, the chapter provided more to interpret; more mystery. This gives the reader the freedom to make the story their own, which is why it is natural for readers to go look for solutions and interpret the novel their own way. Joan Lindsay said she “had moments of wishing she had published the final chapter and saved herself the pestering” (Taylor 9). In her opinion, since everyone in the story would be dead anyway by the time the novel was published, “it hardly seems important”. And while I enjoy looking for new clues and new solutions, in the end I have to agree with her. It’s about the mystery, especially because it is so unclear what really happened. It’s a bit paradoxical. We want answers, but if we got them, it wouldn’t be as good. If we did get answers, it would become about the solution instead.


Lindsay, Joan. Picnic at Hanging Rock. London: Vintage. 1998.

Lindsay, Joan. The Secret of Hanging Rock. Sydney: ETT Imprint. 2016.

Shaw, Julia. “Why are we so fascinated by true crime?” BBC, Accessed 14 February 2021.

Taylor, John. “Introduction” The Secret of Hanging Rock. Sydney: ETT Imprint. 2016.