The story so far …
On St Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls and their mistresses went for a picnic to Hanging Rock in country Victoria, Australia. Three girls and one mistress vanished while walking on the Rock.
In the days following the disappearance, the police mount a search to no avail.
Meanwhile, Michael Fitzhubert has become obsessed with the girls and their disappearance. The young Englishman decides to start his own search.
He scours the Rock, leaving markers on the trees. After several days of obsessive searching, he becomes disorientated and does not return. His valet, Albert, goes out looking for him.
Following the markers, he eventually finds Fitzhubert lying on the upper reaches of the rock, hurt and barely conscious. Albert gets help, and as they pack him off in a coach for medical attention, Fitzhubert, ill and mute, fixes his eye on Albert. Something is clasped in his fist, and Albert pulls apart his fingers to reveal a small scrap of white muslin.
Immediately, Albert sees its significance, and a new search is mounted for the girls in the area in which Fitzhubert was found. Then they find her, Irma, the “little, dark one.” She is lying unconscious under a rocky overhang. She is barefoot and alone, and has been missing for a week.
The renewed search finds no trace of Miranda and Marion, or Miss McGraw.
The Fitzhuberts put up Irma at their country estate so she can rest and recover and receive medical attention. After a doctor examines her, he talks with Mlle de Poitiers. She asks tentatively, embarrassed,
Is she … intact?
“Yes, yes, quite intact,” replies the doctor.
Meanwhile, Irma has no memory of what happened to her or the others. As she recovers, she is coquettish with Fitzhubert who, uncomfortable and distressed at his failure to find the others, pushes her to remember. She makes a visit back to the school which is a disaster. The girls round on her, attacking and demanding answers.
Very quickly, the school itself begins to suffer from the event. Parents withdraw their girls, and the iron authority of Mrs Appleyard, the headmistress, starts to break down. She is drinking heavily, and an orphan student whom she had routinely bullied is found dead after an apparent fall from the school’s tower.
A short time later, the voiceover informs us at the end of the film, Mrs Appleyard committed suicide by throwing herself from Hanging Rock.
The remains of Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw have not been found to this day.
The film got into the psyche of Australians for a number of reasons.
It featured a story that tapped into longstanding fears of Australians of European descent: the story of the lost child in the bush.
From the first days of European settlement in a land perceived as strange and hostile, the motif of the child lost in the bush had featured in art and literature. The fear was so potent that most Australian children, including those in my large extended family in the 1960s and 1970s, were taught what to do if it happened to them, ie, to call “cooee”. The call originated in the Dharuk language of the Aboriginal peoples living around Sydney at the time of European settlement, and is still used today to call to someone or cry for help across large distances in the bush.
The second reason for the film’s impact was the novelty of seeing our own stories and landscapes on the screen, and seeing them in their sublime beauty. The film showed an Australia that was dazzling, dreamy, deeply disturbing, resolutely non-prosaic.
The third reason was the air of sensuality that hung over the film and centred on the incomparable beauty of Miranda, played by Anne-Louise Lambert. Every teenage girl wanted to be her, every man and boy to possess her.
And then there was the music. The pan pipes, played by Romanian, Gheorge Zamfir, emanated from another world, a world of gods and shepherds and satyrs. They were eerily suited to a film about the meeting of European civilisation – in the guise of the young, well-educated girls of Empire – with something obdurate, pre-historic, impervious in the Australian landscape.
Depending on how you look at it, the pipes were either the sound of the most ancient epitome of European civilisation, or the sound of immortality itself.
For these reasons, and many others, Peter Weir’s film and the story of the missing girls got a hold on Australia’s soul and it has never let go.
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