The Mystery of Hanging Rock: Time Abandoned In director Peter Weir’s thought-provoking film Picnic at Hanging Rock, Marion and Miranda, two students and their teacher Miss McCraw undertake an outing to Hanging Rock, a mysterious red monolith well outside the boundaries of their prim finishing school in Victorian Australia. Their subsequent disappearance and its inexplicable nature underscore the contrasts between the human world and the natural world.
By discarding some of the constraints of the human world such as clothing and time and embracing some of the elements of the natural world, the characters can be thought to enter a natural spirituality, like the Australian “dreamtime. While this cosmic revelation is offered to others at Hanging Rock, not all that travel the pathway are ready to give up their human constraints, as evidenced by fellow students Edith and Irma. The power of Hanging Rock is even extended to Sara, a student who was able to avail herself of the natural world while in the confines of the school.
There is a striking difference in the film between the natural world and the human world. The natural world can be most clearly seen through the images of Hanging Rock itself. The mountain is ancient, vast, and mysterious and this knowledge is imparted upon those who are ready to see it. On the other hand the human world tries to constrain and control all that fits in its tidy borders. At the school vegetation is perfectly pruned or held within the confines of a greenhouse. The flowers in the girls’ rooms are picked and perfectly arranged.
In the first scene there is an image of a girl pressing a flower in order to preserve its beautiful shell, but not its intricate being. It is this aesthetic appeal that describes so many of the interactions between the natural and human worlds. In one of the scenes the Fitzhubert Family are having a garden party. But instead of engaging in the natural world as it is, a number of potted plants are placed around the outside. Imposed order and symmetry are prized above the natural world and such “improvements” on nature are necessary for harmony and calm.
This same need for predictability and perceived human superiority is also illustrated in the film through the use of music. In the human world the music remains refined and delicate, but in the natural world, the music is stronger, more s iger, more sweeping, more unpredictable. “For example, the liturgical choir and orchestra swell to crescendo as the girls walkup the rock… ” (Gauper 2001: 215) In the natural world, there is passion and raw emotion, a dangerous yet thrilling threshold of possibility.
While humans have always adapted a controlling view to the environment throughout history, they have varied in the extent of that control. It is compelling that the action of this film takes place in the Victorian era. Few other periods of human existence were as straight-laced. Indeed one of the physical examples of this period were the restrictive clothing enforced upon women, cumulating in the form of the corset. The women who disappeared finally released their corsets and with them the intellectual limitations of a narrow-minded society.
Also illustrated in the film is humankind’s misguided attempt to understand the surrounding environment through a reductionist phenomenon of dissection. On the picnic, Miranda is shown carefully examining a flower with a magnifying glass. It is in this way that humankind seeks to understand. It seeks to destroy the whole in order to better know each individual part. But so often nature is not a sum of its individual parts, but instead can only be understood when looked at in relationship to everything else with which it is inexorably bound.
It is only when Miranda puts down the magnifying glass and goes to look at and experience the rock as a whole that she enters into and understands the natural world for what it truly is. Peter Weir understood and studied much of Aboriginal spirituality and culture, and both of these strongly influenced his work. One particular belief that can be applicable to this film is the belief in “dreamtime. ” This concept is explained in another of Weir’s movies, The Last Wave. “Aboriginals believe in two forms of time. Two parallel streams of activity.
One is the daily objective activity… The other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the ‘dreamtime,’ more real than reality itself. ” (McElroy & Weir, 1977) Due to the parallel nature of the two worlds, it seems that one cannot enter the other without renouncing the world in which they currently reside. In the physical sense Miranda, Marion, Irma and Miss McCraw all freed themselves from the human societal constraints through the removal of their shoes, stockings, and in Miss McCraw’s case, her skirt. But another constraint that is so tied to the human world is that of time.
Whereas time claims to be a concrete classification, it is open to interpretation and manipulation. Time, as a human made construction, is deemphasized in the film by showing its ever changing and untrustworthy nature. At Hanging Rock, everyone’s clocks stop exactly at 12 o’clock. While some people are still able to determine a relative time by the position of the sun, the finality and exactness of the calculations are completely removed from the situation as though canceling out humankind’s interaction and control at this location. Similarly the clock in the policeman’s house also reads 12 o’clock.
This seems to flaunt the ambiguity of the situation. The fact that the control and law of the human world is also stuck in this natural time seems to solidify the power of the natural world over that of the human world. Time is further stretched and morphed through the four girls that travel to Hanging Rock. Miranda seems to imply to Sara at the beginning that she will not be coming back at some point, although she too leaves the ambiguity as to whether she is referring to the trip she’s about to take or some future point in time. It is as if time has no meaning.
Miranda solidifies the importance of time when she says, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place. ” She seems to give herself up completely to the mechanisms of the natural world by surrendering one of the concepts the human world holds so dear, time. It is entirely possible that the girls and Miss McCraw remained in a situation like the one in which they had been left. But with no thought or need of time, they found no desire or need to rejoin the binding human civilization and so were lost forever into a natural world of timelessness.
This natural time is best represented by the mountain itself. On their way to the picnic, Miss McCraw speaks of the geologic past of the mountain. To a mountain time amounts to little. The mountain has existed for so much longer than countless generations of humans. It is possible that when the girls and Miss McCraw gave up their timed and physical confinements they allowed themselves to enter a world and spirituality that only the mountain had known before them. Irma too manipulates time, but seemingly unintentionally and not as completely as the others.
She remembers nothing that happened at Hanging Rock, only what occurred before and after. She is perhaps able or forced to rejoin the human world because of this lack of remembrance. Perhaps because she is so focused on time, it stopped for her as well when she went to the mountain and she was not able to enter a realm without time, but was instead returned to her regulated human world at exactly the time she had perceived to have exited it. It is interesting that three of the characters that returned form Hanging Rock, Irma, Edith and Michael Fitzhubert, all retained injuries to their heads.
Perhaps this represents the physical world unto which they bound themselves. The fact that they continue to maintain their regulated, thought-induced processes caused them no other harm but an injury to the very vehicle that houses such thoughts and constrictions. Two characters that do not find themselves on Hanging Rock, but are also influenced by the human and natural struggle are Sara and Mrs. Appleyard. Sara, had fully witnessed the cruel and confining nature of the human world through her abuse at the orphanage and at the school.
At the orphanage her hair was cut to prevent her from running away. Subsequently at the school she was tied up in order to improve her posture. She therefore felt no allegiance to that human world. She instead let herself enter the natural world of freedom. She laid her physical body down amongst the pansies, her favorite expression of the natural world. Perhaps Sara committed suicide, tying herself forever to the pansies and the natural world she so admired and loved. A further verification of the destiny of the above characters comes from the fate of Mrs. Appleyard, the headmistress.
When Tom the gardener came in to give Mrs. Appleyard the news about Sara’s death, she was already dressed completely in black, as if in anticipation of both Sara’s death and her own. Mrs. Appleyard subsequently climbs Hanging Rock to bring about her own death. However, she does so without the intention of embracing the naturalness of the rock. Instead she clings firmly to her beliefs of the laws and limitations of human society. She sees no salvation form the disorder that has erupted at the school and from the likely culpability that will be leveled at her.
Without her reputation and livelihood and without any clear structure, she sees no possible way for her to continue living. Instead of embracing the ambiguity and freedom as the others do, she releases herself forever from such an uncertain, and now trackless world. It is difficult to forsake the boundaries that human society places on itself. To step beyond these constraints can however lead to a fuller understanding of the natural world and ultimately to a spiritual infinity.