Picnic At Hanging Rock: An Analytical Synopsis

“Waiting a million years, just for us.”- Picnic At At Hanging Rock (1975)

Peter Weir’s Australian cult film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is to this day as mysterious and imaginative as it was at the time of its release more than forty years ago.

In 1975, an American critic infamously threw his cup of coffee at the screen during a viewing of the film due to its absence of a solution to the given mystery. To quote the critic himself, “Movies are supposed to offer resolution, goddammit.”

To this day, many people around the world remain convinced that the event the film revolves around-- the disappearance of numerous schoolgirls during a picnic at Hanging Rock, Australia-- really took place.

Allegedly, some viewers have felt upset after being informed that it was not true. If you're not aware of the fact that it’s fictional, I can certainly understand where you're coming from. The film never informs it audience that its plot is fictional, but instead as irrefutable fact.

Many people become obsessed with the girls' disappearance after a viewing of the film.

While that is the main event, it's a film with many psychological layers that are designed to be analyzed in depth. Upon a third viewing, I realized that Picnic At Hanging Rock is a deeply feminist work and speaks in defense of young women.

The whole film plays like a hazy daydream and its female characters are at times genuinely objectified; they're seen through the male gaze within the film frequently.

I've come to find that to be very intentional. Because the girls are always seen through the eyes of others, they exist within means outside of their own control.

Some people critique Picnic for a lack of characterization in its characters, but it should be noted that this quality is intentional as well.

The girls are either subjected to other's fantasies (without being aware of it) or to the control and authority of authoritarian figures over them. Those in power regard the young women as things to be ignored, things that don't yet matter.

Very often, that exact same mindset works in a contradictory manner. Even if young girls sometimes don't know quite yet what they want, they do have ideas and strong opinions worthy of being valued and respected.

Young women are often seen as things that are malleable and easy to manipulate. It is this kind of manipulation that young women sense they are being subjected to, therefore causing them to rebel. This power struggle then creates the age-old, generational conflict: older authoritarian figure versus out-of-control, misunderstood teen rebel.

And as Weir illustrates, it's not usually a problem with having someone above them but with the lack of respect and comprehension.

At the school, the girls' favorite teacher is a fairly young woman. She's also openly flirty and feminine and the girls appreciate that. She still seems to remember what it's like to be their age and is thus sympathetic and warm to them and treats them as her intellectual equals. While she still functions as an authoritarian figure, the girls obey and respect her precisely because of the respect they receive from her.

Picnic authentically depicts what young women want. They are often ware that they are too young to go without adult supervision entirely, but that's not their internal battle. Young women desire sizable freedom and privacy. Moreover, they want to feel like they have a voice that matters and that is being listened to and taken as seriously as an adult's.

In sexual matters, the girls are seen as adults and sexually mature women. The girls-- some more than others-- are aware of this as well. There's a devastating irony in the fact that people perceive the girls to be old enough to have sex, but not old enough to think for themselves.

One of the girls, Miranda, possesses a magnetic beauty and is very aware of it. She's so beautiful that even women are utterly captivated; because of this ability, Miranda is allowed more freedom than the other girls. It's exactly that ability that female sexuality supposedly possesses that is feared by some people and thus repressed.

But just as with opinions, the repression of that sexuality has adverse effects. On their outing, a handful of the girls ask their sympathetic, young teacher for her permission to go and explore without adult supervision.

It's a hot day, and soon, the restricting clothes fly off and they are in their underwear. While this act can be attributed to the heat, it also gave the girls a sort of naughty, exhilarating satisfaction.

It's after this incident that the girls disappear. Perhaps most mysterious of all is that one of the girls announced that she was not going to come back to another student who had a beast of a crush on her and that she had to learn how to love someone else aside from her.

Miranda, the student in question, has an unearthly quality. Many have speculated that she could be a witch. All in all, however, she is just a young woman possessing an extreme sexual confidence.

One of the girls is later found without a corset and can’t remember a thing, which may imply sexual activity. Though viewers never find out, it does beg the question: was someone with the girls?

She later goes to Europe. As she leaves and prepares to say goodbye to the other girls, she is rather symbolically wearing red. The other girls turn against her because they think she knows what happened and won't say.

It’s scarily in line with the way a medieval town would have turned against an alleged witch; it shows just how dangerous hysteria and repression can be.

The director never explores why the girls disappeared into nature, but he does maintain a mystical and ethereal tone. The girls are frequently observed from a distance and with a certain sensuality. In the eyes of the men that encounter them, they are seen as almost fairytale-like creatures.

But they are real human beings that can, in fact, feel, think, and act for themselves. The director deeply respects that. He crawls into the psychology of the girls and shows us their emotions and their conversations with the same attention to detail as he does the ones between his male characters.

The film's biggest triumph and what is also some people's biggest annoyance with the movie overall is that we never do know what happened.

Both the novel and the film hint that the whole tragedy could have been avoided if they had been allowed freedom.

Their disappearance could even have been a desperate act of revenge and rebellion against the oppression of the 1900s.

In essence, it probably would not have occurred had they been granted a less restrictive lifestyle because they then would have been more used to being out on their own in nature and could have avoided possible dangers.

“A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”

By Ayla Van Damme


  1. This review is very detailed, carefully analyzed and engaging. It makes you want to read it without even a single pause and watch it! Good work, Ayla!

  2. Thank you so much! Always such kind, encouraging words! :)