Peter Weir

Picnic at Hanging Rock

14/01/17

Lyceum, Edinburgh

A cult novel by Joan Lindsay that became a cult movie, directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock has long exerted a powerful influence on the Australian psyche – so much so that even to this day, this entirely fictional story is believed by most Australians to be based on fact. (I believed it myself for years and even after I read the truth of the matter, somehow managed to forget about it until I began re-researching for this review).

Weir’s film made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in 1975, so I was very interested to see how its themes of the conflict between the barbarity of nature and the suffocating repression of Victorian society would translate to the stage. This joint production by Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan Theatre, I am assured, is based more closely on the original novel, but I was indebted to my knowledge of the movie, which helped me to follow what was going on – something I felt I might not have been so sure of if I’d come to it totally unprepared.

The staging is spartan to say the least – an oblong grey box, overhung by some kind of tree limb. There are five female performers who first present themselves as contemporary schoolgirls. Standing in line, they begin to tell us the ‘facts’ of the case – the class visit to the titular rock on Valentine’s Day 1900, resulting in the disappearance of three girls and one of their teachers. The first scene is slow, drawn out (and perhaps a tad overlong) but as the narrative continues, the  actors begin to take on character roles from the original story and things become a lot more interesting. Scenes are presented as short vignettes, with illuminated titles, each one followed by a sudden and complete blackout. Each time the lights snap on again, the characters or props have changed dramatically, amplifying a genuine sense of mystery and magic.

The performances are all assured, though I particularly liked Elizabeth Nabben’s turn as the acerbic headmistress, Miss Appleyard and Amber McMahon’s as Michael Fitzhubert, the lovestruck young man who goes in search of the lost girls and actually manages to find one of them. The effective sound design by J. David Franke also deserves a mention,  incorporating a whole range of sounds from nature mixed in with whispers, groans and sighs, giving the proceeding the atmosphere of a classic Victorian ghost story.

Whilst not achieving the power of Weir’s iconic film, this is nonetheless a fascinating and thoughtful production that deserves your attention.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Falling

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03/05/15

Carol Morley’s The Falling is an intriguing and occasionally mesmerising film, that has somehow managed to stake a claim at the multiplexes, amidst the tub-thumping superhero and action flicks. You’ll have to go back a long way to find something similar; all the way, in fact, to 1975, and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, with which this film seems to share an affinity for the languorous, sensual qualities of nature. Weir’s story was, of course, based in Australia and this one, somewhere in the UK (it’s never actually specified exactly where) but Morley is fond of counterpointing luscious shots of lakes and woods with the tightly corseted, emotionless wasteland of a girls’ private school. Indeed, the two films have so many scenes in common, I refuse to believe that it’s coincidental.

It’s 1969 and the wild and rebellious Abbie (Florence Pugh) is beginning to discover the depths of her own sexuality. Her best friend, Lydia (Maisie Williams) can only watch helplessly as Abbie is inexorably drawn away from her towards Lydia’s brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole). Lydia lives with Kenneth and her tightly buttoned mother, Eileen (Maxine Peake) an agoraphobe who never leaves the house and who seems incapable of portraying any kind of emotion whatsoever. When Abbie finds she is pregnant, it threatens to blow apart the closeted world of the private school she attends and Lydia starts to look for ways to procure an abortion for her friend – but shortly afterwards, Abbie collapses and dies. The resulting shock has a profound effect on her fellow pupils. Lydia begins to experience rapturous fainting spells and as hysteria mounts, more and more more girls (and even one of the female teachers) experience the same phenomenon. In the film’s most powerful scene, pretty much the whole morning assembly succumbs. Is it simply a case of mass hysteria? Or is something deeper and more sinister at work?

The film revels in throwing out more questions than it has answers for. Morley’s slow, sensual direction generates an atmosphere of incredible tension and there are occasional uses of subliminal imagery that lend the film an almost hallucinatory quality. As Lydia, Williams delivers an unforgettable performance, while Pugh is so charismatic that her memory haunts the proceedings despite her early exit. Interesting too, to see former Merchant Ivory pin-up Greta Scaachi, taking on the role of the school’s sternest teacher.

The Falling is by no means a perfect film, but it’s far more experimental than most movies you’ll see these days and it has an ephemeral quality that will prompt you to talk about it long after the final credits have rolled. Not something you would say about Iron Man or The Avengers.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney