Shallow waves of cloud crash across a slate sky, cleaving the sun. Yet its path remains true, casting a lighthouse beam across the shadowy hill below. Rocks shaped like gravestones litter the slope – haphazard eruptions with no regard for a cemetery’s grid. Gangly trees cower before them. Two tiny human interlopers gaze up from a flat in the foreground, one kneeling down as if in prayer, the other’s arms raised in exaltation.
This 1855 drawing is one of the first known images of what would become known as Hanging Rock, a geological formation approximately 70 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. The artist William Blandowski was an interloper too – a German zoologist and mining engineer who would found the Geology Society of Victoria. The drawing is one of 29 scenes Blandowski drew in preparation for his book Australia Terra Cognita, a study of Australia that would never be completed; the land of the south would remain unknown for some time. Blandowski imbues the scene with biblical wonder, its ascending composition drawing the eye heavenward, much like the iconography of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it’s before nature, rather than its creator, that these figures repent. This unsettling drawing gestures towards a mystery that veils the landscape still.
Hanging Rock would be made myth many years later, when a trio of schoolgirls and their teacher disappeared here. That this did not happen in reality but in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock is almost beside the point. As in Blandowski’s drawing, Lindsay describes the Rock’s ‘splendid spectacle’ through a parlance of life and death: ‘the play of golden light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, others grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire.’ She captured something so resonant about this place that it blurred fact and fiction in the national consciousness.
Hanging Rock would become even more mythic after Peter Weir’s 1975 cinematic adaptation: a film that altered the fate of the Australian film industry, casting a shadow that stretches on 40 years later.
* * *
‘The mountain comes to Mohammed, and Hanging Rock comes to Mr Hussey,’ says the peculiar Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) in the film, looking down her bespectacled nose at their simple driver (Martin Vaughan) as the coach brimming with schoolgirls approaches. Once again the monolith invokes religious dread, an insurmountable obstacle before which humans must bow. ‘More than 500 feet high, she is. Volcanic, of course, thousands of years old.’ ‘A million years old, Mr Hussey, or thereabouts.’ ‘Yes, well, that’d be right. A thousand million. Devil of a long time anyway, in a manner of speaking.’ While Miss McCraw relays the geological specificities, the girls stare up in awe at the looming form shading their path. Ancient and everlasting, Hanging Rock is a place where history seems to have stood still. ‘Waiting a million years, just for us,’ says the knowing Irma (Karen Robson), as if already aware of her destiny.
In fact, they all underestimate the formation. It’s thought to be 6–7 million years old, a time span so vast it tugs at the mind’s contours. It’s an outcrop of the primordial world. Rising 105 metres above the ground, Hanging Rock is an anomaly even in this volcanic region (the nearby Mount Macedon was once an active crater). This geological phenomenon is called a mamelon, taken from the French, meaning ‘nipple’, though the forms it produces are decidedly phallic. Crags develop after several successive eruptions of stiff lava from vents in the bedrock, each additional layer piling on top of the next. As the lava cools it splits into columns, weathering into rough pinnacles over time, maybe even into gravestones, if you wait long enough.
Back in Blandowski’s day the formation was called Mount Diogenes. Surveyor Robert Hoddle named it in 1844 and thus staked his claim, consistent with the ancient Greek names bestowed by Major Thomas Mitchell during his 1836 expedition. The founder of Cynic philosophy, the iconoclast Diogenes of Sinope was renowned for stunts like carrying a lamp through the streets in the daytime, claiming to be searching for an honest man. Diogenes was an eccentric namesake befitting this extraordinary landscape. It wasn’t until 1859 that the more prosaic name Hanging Rock came into common usage, describing the boulder suspended over the main track.
For thousands of years prior it had been a gathering place for the Wurundjeri people, the land’s traditional custodians. It was a favoured camping spot for the Edibolidgitoorong sub-clan, who used it as a lookout for monitoring weather and hunting conditions, as well as maintaining security. Some say it was a ceremonial ground, entry to which was forbidden except to men undergoing initiation. When Mitchell travelled through he noted the telltale smallpox scars already appearing on the Aboriginal population in the area. By the early 1840s they’d been forced out by settlers, and by 1863 the last of the Wurundjeri would be rounded up (along with Aboriginals from across Victoria) on Coranderrk station, exiled from this sacred site. Revered Aboriginal artist William Barak, an elder who would eventually lead the residents of Coranderrk to petition parliament, continued to paint the ceremonies that once took place at Hanging Rock. With hindsight, the gravestones seem to mark the violence enacted here.
Bushrangers were also thought to use its peaks as a viewpoint to survey the surrounds, hiding out among the stone maze from the law. There are even rumours of subterranean tunnels that they burrowed.
On certain days the wind blows between the stones, whistling through caves and crevices, creating a humming noise that echoes and builds. Perhaps it’s warning those who trespass on this sacrosanct ground. Many men have suicided by leaping from its pinnacles over the years. One rock platform jutting out from the cliff is known as Lovers Leap.
* * *
The Australian film industry was, for many decades, a place that time also forgot. Comforting as the historical tidbit is, that Australia produced the world’s first feature – 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, a lament for the last of the bushrangers, only 17 minutes of which survives today – this early flourishing of bushranger films was transitory. In 1911 the popular genre was banned, in the public interest, and by the end of World War I the Hollywood juggernaut had been let in, basically bringing local film production to a standstill by the 1960s (bar a few films made by foreign studios). It wasn’t until the financial success of multicultural comedy They’re a Weird Mob in 1966 that perceptions of Australian cinema’s viability began to shift. Two films shot in 1971 that saw Australia through outsiders’ eyes – Walkabout and Wake in Fright – struck a cultural nerve that would prove crucial to the national film revival, both presenting terrifying portraits of an untameable interior.
Such successes spurred on groups who’d already begun lobbying for the revival of the local industry, campaigning John Gorton’s Liberal government for financial support and the relaxation of censorship. It worked. The Australian Film Development Corporation was established in 1970 (later the Australian Film Commission), as was the Experimental Film Fund. It was also announced that a national film and television school would be created, another pivotal step for developing new talent in the nascent industry; the first intake included auteurs like Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong.
Ironically, it was through ocker comedies, Australia’s first box office successes, that the industry would eventually find its maturity: Tim Burstall’s Stork (1971), based on David Williamson’s first play, which follows the exploits of the eponymous beanstalk through Carlton sharehouses; Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), a smarter incarnation (co-written with Barry Humphries) that satirised the wild colonial let loose in the mother country; and Burstall’s Alvin Purple (1973), the story of an ordinary bloke who discovers that he’s irresistible to women. John Tittensor’s assessment in Cinema Papers that Alvin Purple has ‘no redeeming values at all’ captured the critical mood; by the end of 1979 the film reaped over $4 million, becoming the highest grossing Australian film ever.
Without these ribald financial smashes it would have been impossible to get the production of Picnic at Hanging Rock off the ground. Picnic at Hanging Rock showed the emergent industry that ‘art house’ films could prosper too, forging a rare nexus between aesthetic and commercial success, and showed international markets Australian cinema wasn’t all swilling beer and chasing sheilas. Together, their prosperity ensured the revival of the fledgling industry.
* * *
Grey mist clears, but the Rock remains unchanged, frozen like a postcard. Beneath scattered birdsong echoes the low rumble of a volcano. This ominous scene dissolves into the golden grass surrounding Appleyard College, a stuffy girl’s school plonked incongruously in the middle of the bush. A spectral voice recites the key lines of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1849 poem ‘Dream Within a Dream’:
All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream
So begins Peter Weir’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Poe’s short ode to loss becoming a mantra that resounds across the film. Already the conscious and unconscious are starting to blur. Gheorghe Zamfir’s panpipe refrain echoes the poem’s mournful tone, this famous piece now best remembered as the film’s dirge.
Appleyard College is a hermetically sealed world at odds with its surroundings – a ridiculous symbol of the faraway colonial outpost. Weir cast most of the schoolgirls from an open callout in South Australia, many of them unprofessional, after deciding teenagers from the Eastern Seaboard were too worldly to play these ingénues. It’s the stiff-collared and slightly sadistic Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) who is at home here. The part was originally to be played by Vivien Merchant – she was injured a few days before she was due to fly to Australia and had to be quickly replaced – yet it’s difficult to imagine the character without Roberts and her barely contained rage. Even Mrs Appleyard’s outrageous bouffant, like a small animal perched atop her head, was Roberts’s doing; she brought her own wig with her from London, claiming that stage lore dictated it bad luck to wear another actress’s hairpiece.
What happens at Appleyard is simple enough: the plot of the film hinges on the mystery of three girls who go missing during a midday picnic at Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Anyone who’s visited the landscape wouldn’t be surprised. Even today, when the tourist path is clearly mapped, it’s easy to lose your way in the inviting crevices and gullies. Turn the wrong corner and you’re lost in a labyrinth.
The terror of the girl’s disappearance ripples across the surrounding world. Parents begin pulling their children from the school. Some teachers flee. Others go mad. Irma eventually surfaces but returns an amnesiac, unable to remember anything about her lost days; lovelorn Sara (Margaret Nelson), the missing Miranda’s (Anne-Louise Lambert) roommate, throws herself from the school’s upper floors. In what is perhaps the film’s most horrifying moment a pack of girls descend on Irma to find out what happened, shoving and screaming with a mob’s frenzy: ‘Tell us, Irma, tell us!’
Weir chose to excise the footage of Mrs Appleyard’s suicide, in which she treads the same path up the rock face before flinging herself from its peak. Instead he lets Roberts’s thousand mile stare linger. It’s all there in her quivering face, obscured by a mourning veil: the guilt, the unravelling. The mystery of the girls’ fate is joined by another: just why this particular story has enthralled so many, and for so long.
Martindale Hall, a two-storey Georgian-style mansion in the Clare Valley wine region of South Australia, became the setting for the college. The palatial home was initially built in 1880 for Edward Bowman Jr, a wealthy South Australian pastoralist. Legend has it that Bowman’s British paramour promised to emigrate once he built her a suitable manor. Bowman spared no expense, bringing almost every single one of his tradesmen from England and importing the finest fittings from around the world. The mansion overlooks vast grounds where Bowman installed flocks of peacocks; he even filled the nearby hills with deer. And yet his love did not come. He lived there alone, a prince in his gilded castle, before selling it to a prominent grazier family in 1892. Several of the film crew said they could feel the anguish seeping from the walls. Today it’s a hotel and museum that capitalises on the film’s nostalgia, hosting Cluedo-style murder nights.
Before the girls’ disappearance, Appleyard College is a kind of prelapsarian fantasy. Shot through gauzy filters, the girls stand in a giggling chain gang, tightening each other’s corsets; they wash their faces in water peppered with rose petals. They themselves are rare blooms, too fragile for the world beyond the college gates, but too lively for the stately home. The ornate space is disrupted by their chaos, the perfect symmetry of the central staircase broken as they cascade down to breakfast.
For all Mrs Appleyard’s ministrations, she struggles to contain the wild energy of the schoolgirls. Queer undertones simmer beneath the prim facade. Sulky orphan Sara obsesses over Miranda long before she goes missing, Miranda’s framed photo bulging in the pocket of her dress. Mrs Appleyard comes undone, downing sherries at dinner, admitting how she longs for the ‘masculine intellect’ of the missing Miss McCraw. It’s a connotation that Weir himself staunchly denies. He recalls receiving a phone call from the novelist Patrick White, praising him when the film was released. The then 27-year-old director was terrified by White’s booming voice. ‘Well, it’s all lesbian,’ White concluded, to Weir’s chagrin.
* * *
Peter Weir was educated at Vaucluse High and Scots College in Sydney before enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts Law at the University of Sydney, from which he soon dropped out. After taking up his father’s real estate business, he journeyed to Europe to find himself, and discovered filmmaking while he was at it. Upon his return he landed a job as a stagehand at ATN-7 in Sydney, and later took a position at the Commonwealth Film Unit. A second trip abroad generated the ideas for many of his later films.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was only Weir’s second feature, but it bore the markers of a unique vision. Producer Patricia Lovell, who purchased the rights to the novel, decided on Weir after seeing Homesdale (1971), Weir’s strange short about a group of misfits at an artists colony. Already the young director displayed an interest in the mystical, some sense that there are things that are beyond our reach. His debut feature The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) was a horror-comedy that took a detour through Paris, an outback town where residents force cars off the road in order to pick clean the carcasses. It, too, carried traces of Weir’s hallmarks: the blurring of dream and reality; the terror of isolation; a distinctive aesthetic; keen wit.
These ideas only fully coalesced in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Its release saw critics at home and abroad taking notice, claiming it as a triumph not just of the young director but of an industry that had previously been considered inchoate. Mike Harris in The Australian extolled ‘a film that moves us into a whole different area of world cinema’. In the Sydney Morning Herald Helen Frizell recognised it as ‘the best Australian film that I have ever seen’, while Scott Murray in Cinema Papers claimed it was ‘the best film yet made in Australia’. But, strangely, it was completely ignored by the Australian Film Industry Awards, who gave most of that year’s accolades to Ken Hannam’s more conservative shearing drama, Sunday Too Far Away.
International audiences validated the under-confident industry. Richard Schickel of Time saw it as ‘the centerpiece, so far, of the revitalized Australian film industry and the first assured work by a director who could gain an international reputation’. Pierre Greenfield of Movietone News was not so tactful: ‘That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in a land as apparently crass as Australia may surprise some’; Variety said that, visually, ‘it probably is one of the most beautiful pix ever seen’. Concerns that the film’s lack of closure would be disastrous to the US box office were swiftly proven wrong. It was sold into 37 territories besides, grossing $5,120,000 in Australia alone to become the most profitable Australian film of the 1970s (from a modest budget of $456,000).
Picnic at Hanging Rock would open the door to a slew of period films and adaptations – what would become known as the ‘Australian Film Commission genre’, so prolific was this style of government-funded movies – including Bruce Beresford’s take on Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), an adaptation of Miles Franklin’s 1901 autobiography. It was in period films that the emerging industry would find its strength.
* * *
Beneath Hanging Rock, in the dappled shade of noon, is a place where time elongates, swelling much like the young revellers; to get the light exactly right the picnic scene was shot at this time every day, for just one hour, over the course of a week. Both driver and teacher find their watches have stopped, but pay no heed. Miranda salutes St Valentine by driving a dagger into a heart-shaped sponge, a sweet take on a pagan rite. When most of the schoolgirls fall into a lazy slumber, it’s those knowing ones, trailed by busybody Edith (Christine Schuler), who dare scale the rock.
These schoolgirls, in their blindingly white cotton dresses, couldn’t be more foreign to this landscape. On the soundtrack are the distended sounds of a distant earthquake, a rumbling reference to the geological act that birthed this place, but the girls can’t hear it. Ants march steadily on to consume the frilly cake: a world seething beneath the surface. Mrs Appleyard seemingly knows, though. She cautions against ‘tomboyish tomfoolery’, warning them of the ‘venomous snakes’ and ‘poisonous ants of various species’ that convene here.
Weir’s aesthetic also distends and grows sleepy. He and cinematographer Russell Boyd throw in jags of slow motion unannounced, almost rips in time. Shots are taken through muslin to capture the hazy light of girlhood. But as the girls get nearer the rock’s pinnacle things take a darker turn, shot from within the shadowy crags, as if some primordial presence is spying out. What is it that wants to swallow up these pristine specimens?
They are innocent, yes, but the girl’s burgeoning sexuality also links them to this wild world. When the trio ascend the Rock they remove shoes and stockings to go barefoot, throwing off the markers of colonial women’s restraint. Frumpy and dumpy Edith, however, is not susceptible to the landscape’s lure. Only the worldly trio of Miranda, Irma and Marion (Jane Vallis) fall under its spell. Later an embarrassed Edith reports seeing Miss McCraw walking up the hill without her skirt, in only her pantaloons; when Irma is found, her corset remains missing.
Ringleader Miranda embodies this tussle between desire and repression, a chimera onto whom others project their desires: her seraphic locks, her porcelain skin, her radiance. Unlike her namesake in The Tempest – daughter of Prospero, naively unaware of the evils that surround her – there’s an otherworldly knowingness to this Miranda. On the morning of the picnic she tells Sara she must learn to redirect her affections. ‘Miranda knows lots of things that other people don’t know. Secrets,’ says Sara obliquely. ‘She knew she wouldn’t come back.’ As Miranda leaves the group for what will be the last time, the French governess Mlle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) has an apparent revelation. ‘Now I know…that Miranda is a Botticelli Angel,’ she says. But this, too, is just a mirage.
Toffy young Brit Michael Fitzhubert (import Dominic Guard) and his sidekick Albert (a very young John Jarrett, in his first screen role) represent two Australian types: the out-of-place colonial and the crude larrikin who’s right at home in the bush. Yet when the locals dismiss the girls as surely dead it’s Michael who scales the rock, finding a fragment of petticoat that leads to an unconscious Irma. In the same way the trio are hypnotised by the landscape, Michael is bewitched by a momentary glimpse of Miranda, becoming obsessed with the shimmering vision. Michael sees her as a swan, with all the mystery and beauty of the birds that Yeats looks upon in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, her very image an augur of her loss: ‘I have looked upon those brilliant creatures/And now my heart is sore’.
‘Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place,’ says Miranda to her fellow wanderers just before they disappear.
* * *
This particular strain of mystery, of terror, has in fact run through Australian cinema since its beginning. Early bushranger films brought audiences into contact with the colonial outlaw, but the fear of the outback itself has been most abiding. The bush is alive with hidden menace, inhospitable to interlopers. It seethes with the terror of the unheimlich, those threats that ought to have remained secret but creep towards the light. Isolation breeds madness. What lies in this interior, unknown and unknowable?
You can see it clearly in The Back of Beyond, a 1954 documentary about an intrepid postman making his way along the Birdsville Track, a treacherous mail route that runs through the desolate interior. The film is littered with surreal digressions and fleeting ghost stories, like the tale of two little girls who dare to cross the border of the farm’s fence, never to be seen again. In Walkabout (1971), a film by Swedish director Nicolas Roeg, the Australian interior teems with hidden life in a similar way to Lindsay’s and Weir’s – a landscape that very nearly consumes two British schoolchildren left to fend for themselves after their father suicides, before they’re saved by a kindly Aboriginal (the first film role for David Gulpilil). In Wake in Fright (1971), the isolation and heat make everyone deranged, where the aggressive hospitality of the Australian male descends into a dizzying fever dream.
What is it that’s so inscrutable about these terrains? The glaring answer is the spectres of the colonial past, the violence writ into the landscape – an uncomfortable history that can’t explain away the mystery, but that goes some way. After Charles Chauvel’s melodrama Jedda (1954), it wasn’t until the ’70s revival that films with Aboriginal characters emerged – Walkabout, Weir’s follow-up, The Last Wave (1977), and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) – but for many years they were thought to be ‘box office poison’. What better way to substantiate terra nullius than to pretend the First Peoples never existed at all? It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the first feature films were made by Indigenous directors like Tracey Moffatt (BeDevil, 1993) and Rachel Perkins (Radiance, 1998).
Adelaide geologist Alan Watchman penned one of several strange spin-off novels that attempted to solve what happened at Hanging Rock that day, Secrets at Hanging Rock (2013). It follows a team of archaeologists who discover a cavern filled with rock art and human bones that reveal the secret. With Weir’s ongoing interest in Aboriginal mythology, it’s hard not to think that perhaps the ghosts of the landscape were also in the back of his mind.
He’d go on to explore similar ideas in his next film, The Last Wave, the story of a lawyer, the archetypal rationalist, who comes into contact with the mystical. David (Richard Chamberlain) begins having apocalyptic visions when he’s asked to represent a group of Aboriginals on trial for a murder in Sydney. He’s convinced they’re tribal, enacting ancient law. Everyone else thinks he’s mad.
The Last Wave comes across as misguided now, with its heebie-jeebie mysticism, fear of the arcane other and bastardised take on the Dreaming. The idea for the film came to Weir while in Tunisia on his second world jaunt. He recalled being seized by the feeling that he would find something, pulling his car over to discover, on the ground, the selfsame object he’d imagined: a carving of a child’s head. The notion of Aboriginal prescience became Weir’s way of exploring this experience. During the same trip Weir carved his own stone sarcophagus; his will stipulates that it should be the receptacle for his ashes.
Hanging Rock holds some animalistic pull, the girls ascending as if held in a trance. Under the Rock’s hypnotic lure they begin to expel some of their hormonal energy, a kind of ‘going native’ that allows them to express what’s been repressed. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there, like a lot of ants? A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Though it is probable they are performing some function unknown to themselves,’ says Marion. From this height the picnickers look just like the marching horde who descended on the cake earlier. She’s granted sagacity to see their mindless rituals for what they really are.
* * *
The blurring of truth and illusion is central to Picnic at Hanging Rock’s mystery. Joan Lindsay’s enigmatic author note ensured it: ‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.’
On any visit to Hanging Rock you’re bound to encounter a school group or busload of tourists with some loudmouth screaming ‘Mirandaaaaa!’ up the craggy face. As a child I remember asking a waitress at the adjacent café if the story were really true, at my parents’ gentle nudging. She rolled her eyes and replied, ‘Nobody knows.’
While the party line is to retain the mystery, those who bothered to investigate have found the tale quickly unravels. Patricia Lovell scoured newspapers from the time but failed to find a trace. The school that Lindsay attended as a teenager, which was thought to be the inspiration for Appleyard College, Clyde Girls’ Grammar School, didn’t relocate to Woodend until 1919. The celebration of St Valentine that year fell on a Wednesday rather than a Saturday.
If you look for vestiges of Lindsay, you’ll find them everywhere. Several critics have noted the similarities between the day she described and British-born painter William Ford’s 1875 painting At The Hanging Rock, which was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1950 during her husband Daryl’s tenure as director. Like many British painters, Ford fails to quite grasp the colour palette of the Australian scrub. There’s something unnerving about the scene, ladies in finery gossiping in the dappled light of a clearing, oblivious to the brooding cliff face that looms over them,
The trope of the frozen watches – a phenomenon that several members of the cast and crew swore actually happened when they were filming – is something that Lindsay claimed to cause: people’s watches stopped in her presence throughout her life. She calls it her ‘sinister gift’. Her memoir is even titled Time Without Clocks (1962), about her early married life at Mulberry Hill, where she wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock and lived for most of her life.
Perhaps for this reason Lindsay had a holistic concept of time – almost a simplified version of the Dreaming. ‘I’ve always felt that [time] was something that was all around one, not just in a long line in a calendar,’ she said in an interview. ‘I feel that one’s in the middle of time, and that the past, present and future are really all around and I’m in the middle of it, which is a really unscientific way of looking at it.’
Lindsay describes writing the novel with the mysticism of the muse, recalling it like a possession. Each night she saw visions that she would put on paper the following morning. ‘It was almost as if it were before me like a film when I wrote it,’ she recalled. ‘It was a very visual experience for me.’ So vivid that when Lindsay visited the set she rushed across the room to Anne-Louise Lambert (whom she’d never met) and hugged her. ‘Oh, Miranda,’ she said, ‘it’s been so long.’
The author had in fact written a final chapter explaining what happened, to be published after her death, but would react angrily if anyone asked her directly. She responded obliquely to fans who wrote her, seeking an answer: ‘Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery.’
* * *
Picnic at Hanging Rock’s secrets would also haunt members of the cast. Anne-Louise Lambert found herself trapped as Miranda, unable to free herself from the ethereal character. Cast when she was 20 years old, she was one of the only girls who was a professional actress. Born in Brisbane before later relocating to Sydney, she was first spotted by Weir as ‘Fancy Nancy’, the face of a Fanta commercial (featuring a jingle by Johnny Farnham).
‘I had the feeling that Peter thought perhaps we were too young and inexperienced to really be handled as actors, and that he was looking for qualities in us that we weren’t perhaps even aware we possessed,’ she said later. Lambert felt a world away from Miranda, herself shy and hypersensitive compared with the warm and bright character. Lambert felt isolated from the other girls, who formed cliques much like those in the schoolyard. Yet Weir insisted the children not talk with the adults, maintaining the rigid rules of Appleyard College off set.
Despite her early promise, Lambert’s acting career never quite took off. There were film roles with Peter Greenaway, Australian and UK television series and theatre, but she could never quite shake Miranda – who she felt plagued her when auditioning. She describes finally seeing Botticelli’s Venus in the flesh when she was filming BBC series The Borgias (1981) in Florence: ‘I thought: “She looks so tired.” I felt her weariness of carrying all these projections, wrapping her up in all their particular notions of what was beautiful, sexy, desirable.’
In a ‘Where Are They Now?’ article published in 1998 Lambert described the way Miranda stalked her still. ‘I think a lot of people projected Miranda on to me, particularly men,’ she told the journalist. ‘I still come across people, particularly young boys, who have just seen it for the first time and have fallen in love with that version of me.’ Now a psychologist in Northern Sydney, she still receives missives penned to her 20-year-old self, frozen in time.
The troubled star Rachel Roberts in some ways re-enacted the fate of tyrant Mrs Appleyard, too. During shooting she refused to fraternise with the girls once the camera stopped rolling, and had a drinking habit to rival her character’s. Lambert remembers her as a ‘dragon’, while Weir and Lovell saw someone intensely dedicated to her craft; they remember being called to a disturbance one night in the Adelaide Hotel, where they were all staying, only to find Roberts stark naked and screaming drunk in the courtyard, yelling for someone to come and have a ‘night of fun’ with her. At 53, Roberts poisoned herself after a final, failed attempt to woo her ex-husband. She was found by the gardener on her kitchen floor, surrounded by shards of glass after falling through a decorative divide – an image eerily resonant of orphan Sara’s body after crashing through the greenhouse roof.
Things worked out for Weir, at least. He was lauded as Australian cinema’s great white hope, completing three more features and one telemovie at home. But, like most of our filmmaking talent, he soon heeded Hollywood’s call.
* * *
Over the years many have hypothesised what happened to the girls who disappeared at Hanging Rock that fateful day. A 1987 article asked several writers to speculate: Thomas Keneally claimed the French governess did it, but they never found the bodies; Morris Gleitzman said it was an allegory for the Vietnam War, where a platoon goes into foreign territory but some don’t return; Nicholas Hasluck conceived a psychic allegory foreshadowing the Holocaust.
After Joan Lindsay died in 1984, at age 89, the fabled final chapter was eventually published, on Valentine’s Day in 1987, by Sydney writer John Taylor – one of the few she’d trusted with a copy (along with Weir and Lovell). In fact, the girls had encountered a ‘hole in space’, hidden among the crags, a kind of time warp that sucked them into another dimension. The answer is just as baffling as the secret.
Weir told The Advertiser in 1974 about his love of mystery. ‘When I was a devout little boy,’ he said, ‘I was very anxious to get to Heaven, so I could ask God what really happened to the mystery ship Mary Celeste’ – the ghost ship that was found unmanned on the Atlantic in 1872. It was undamaged and had six months’ worth of food and water, yet its crew and passengers were never found. That Joan Lindsay likens her story to the archetypal ghost ship in the final line of the novel suggests a kindred spirit: ‘Thus the College Mystery, like that of the celebrated case of the Marie Celeste, seems likely to remain forever unsolved.’
Unsolved, too, is the mystery of just why this film maintains such a hold on the national imagination. It routinely tops surveys as the favourite Australian film of all time. ‘There is probably a need or a longing for those kinds of stories – our own myths in these landscapes, in this place,’ said Lambert when she was interviewed yet again, this time for the film’s 35th anniversary.
* * *
I’d been staring at William Blandowski’s drawing every morning, pulling it up on my computer screen like a talisman before I wrote. It was weeks before I pressed the wrong key and the foreground jolted forward, the image blown up several times its original size. On the slope was a huddle of figures so Lilliputian I’d never noticed them until now; they were obscured by yet another shadow, the smoke from their fire merging with the rays of a celestial sun. Perhaps they are bushrangers in hiding. Perhaps they’re the ghosts of those exiled come to reclaim their land. Perhaps they’re those girls who dared to step beyond their bounds and fell through a fissure in time.