Picnic Being the Operative Word: Mrs. Appleyard and Sara in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
7 August 2011
In 1975, Peter Weir directed, perhaps his best film to date, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film revolves around the mysterious disappearance of three students and one governess at Hanging Rock on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900. The students are from the all-girls Appleyard College, run by Mrs. Appleyard. Yet, although the film revolves around the disappearance, the film is not about the disappearance; the mystery remains unsolved. Instead, the film focuses on how the disappearance effects and affects people associated with it. Characters like Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the headmistress, Sara (Margaret Nelson), a girl from the college, and Edith (Christine Schuler), a student at Hanging Rock during the disappearance react strongly to the disappearance and progress the film from what could have been a thriller or mystery into a deeply psychological drama.
While all of the aforementioned characters present interesting plots to follow, perhaps the most interesting is the relationship between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara. In the beginning of the film two things are made very clear: Sara is in love with Miranda (one of the girl who goes missing shortly into the film) and Mrs. Appleyard, a stern woman, is particularly tough on Sara. Furthermore, the opening identifies Sara as a passive, soft-spoken, vulnerable young woman. Conversely, Mrs. Appleyard is the epitome of Victorian standards: her appearance is pristine (too pristine) and she is rigidly intolerant to those who do not conduct themselves in an acceptable manner. These early established qualities are expanded upon after the disappearance and contribute to the abusive and ultimately violent relationship brewing between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara.
Prior to the disappearance, Sara is not allowed to attend the picnic with Miranda and the other girls; instead she must stay back at the college with Mrs. Appleyard. To Mrs. Appleyard Sara is a rebel who must be punished, which more pointedly means Sara does not fit the mold Mrs. Appleyard prescribes. Mrs. Appleyard typically targets Sara because of what she perceives as Sara’s relatively liberal disposition, and the punishments she inflicts upon Sara, like not allowing her to attend the picnic, are Mrs. Appleyard’s effort to break Sara of her freethinking nature, to obey. However, after the disappearances, when tension, panic, and uncertainty mount, the stress begins to get to Mrs. Appleyard and her toughness on Sara turns more into torture. Though these characters, Weir explores the biggest mystery of all: the way the mind operates under stress and chaos. Perhaps more curious than what happened so quickly to the women on Hanging Rock is how slowly and unconsciously the mind can unravel.
After the disappearances, Mrs. Appleyard starts threatening Sara with being kicked out of Appleyard College. According to Mrs. Appleyard, Sara’s guardian is no longer paying her tuition or communicating with the school; therefore, Mrs. Appleyard taunts Sara with the prospect of being returned to the orphanage from which she was adopted. Each time Mrs. Appleyard discusses this prospect with Sara the two women are alone and Mrs. Appleyard does all the talking.
During the first of these taunts Mrs. Appleyard paces calmly back and forth behind Sara, the way a spider can move calmly up and down its web around its already trapped prey. The second time, when Mrs. Appleyard actually kicks Sara out of the school, Sara is in bed; a drunk Mrs. Appleyard enters Sara’s bedroom and tells her, coldly, she will return to the orphanage. Clearly, Mrs. Appleyard’s aggression toward Sara builds as she realizes the mysterious disappearances of the women on Hanging Rock, and, at this point, likely deaths, is causing students to withdraw from her college, calling her financial security into question.
Cinematically, Weir rarely cuts in scenes between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara—truthfully, his cuts are infrequent in much of the film. Instead of cuts, Weir moves the camera slowly and calmly between the two actors, similar to the way an audience member’s head would sway should they be watching a theatrical performance. This cinematography work well because the audience is lulled into a false sense of realism; not interrupting the scene with cuts allows the audience to forget they are watching a film. The realism of the scene makes Mrs. Appleyard’s behavior even more disturbing and hateful.
Although these attacks on Sara are initially and primarily psychological, Sara’s physical health is affected; Sara becomes weaker and weaker throughout the film. By the time Mrs. Appleyard kicks Sara out of the college, Sara is basically bedridden. Once Sara’s physical condition reaches this stage, Mrs. Appleyard also gets physical.
The morning after Mrs. Appleyard went to Sara’s room to tell her she would be sent back to the orphanage, Mrs. Appleyard reveals to a governess at the college Sara’s guardian unexpectedly arrived that morning and took her home, but this story falls apart when a groundskeeper finds Sara’s dead body. Like the womens’ disappearance on Hanging Rock, the film omits Sara’s death; however, she is found in a small greenhouse next to the school, having fallen through its glass ceiling from one of the college’s windows or from the roof. While it is plausible Mrs. Appleyard’s news about returning to the orphanage may have depressed Sara enough to commit suicide, Mrs. Appleyard’s lies about Sara’s guardian’s arrival suggest she had a hand (or a push) in Sara’s death. Supporting the assumption Mrs. Appleyard murdered Sara, Mrs. Appleyard is dressed entirely in black, veil and all, when she receives the news of Sara’s death, as though she already knew the news was coming. Also, there are bags of luggage stacked in the middle of Mrs. Appleyard’s office, meaning Mrs. Appleyard did actually pack Sara’s things up or Mrs. Appleyard herself planned to leave the school promptly. Furthermore the narrator at the end of the film confirms Mrs. Appleyard died shortly after at Hanging Rock. People believe she fell when climbing, but, like all of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s mysteries, there is no way to be sure.
In part, the relationship between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara explores Weir’s investigation into the mind, and its ability to slowly unravel when confronted with trauma, stress, and/or confusion. Mrs. Appleyard’s biggest fear for the missing women is that something fatal happened to them. Ironically, in relentlessly grappling with that notion, Mrs. Appleyard, likely, drove herself insane enough to kill Sara. Hidden underneath the random and bizarre mystery at Hanging Rock is a much more common, familiar mystery, our psychological responses to crisis and confusion.