Nature is a place so old and so large that we can never understand it. All a human can do is sit back and appreciate its power. At least that’s what Picnic at Hanging Rock would have us think. Through a clever combination of camera angles, camera movements, and editing, the film often gives the sense that its characters are being overcome by the vast influence of nature. This feeling is, perhaps, most felt in the scenes that take place at Hanging Rock itself. It’s as though nature is engulfing the people that step into this natural formation. Viewers are left with a sense that they, too, were in contact with something beyond themselves as they watch characters venture into this mysterious place. There is no better scene that exemplifies the evocation of this feeling than that in which the four girls are climbing into Hanging Rock.
As our scene begins, we’re looking up at a tree in the sunlight. This motif of the camera looking up at nature will repeat over and over during this sequence. It serves to accentuate the massive scale of the natural world. As viewers gaze up at these trees, they, like the four girls, are meant to feel small in comparison. At the same time, the harsh sunlight filtering through the trees creates sense of haziness, making the scene feel as though it’s a dream or a mirage. The entire sequence maintains this tint. It is also at this moment that the music, with its minor chords, begins, suffusing everything with a sense of mystery.
The camera pans across the landscape and down to reveal the girls working their way through a field of tall grass. The girls remain partially obscured by the grass, as though they are being engulphed by it. At the same time, a few of the massive boulders that make up Hanging Rock loom over them. For this shot and many others the camera shoots them from a medium distance, ensuring that the girls look small in relation to the landscape. All of these techniques combine in order accentuate the power of nature and draw attention to the smallness of the girls and the viewers in relation to it.
As we follow the girls into Hanging Rock we’re presented with a close-up shot of each of the girls. The shot is angled upward and the boulders are shown looming over each of them. These close-up shots are interspersed with a shot looking up at Hanging Rock and the sky, as though we’re seeing the world through the eyes of the girls. It’s also at this point that the soundtrack begins to incorporate vocal accompaniment which adds another ethereal layer to the scene.
We next see the girls emerging from the vegetation and taking a moment to look up at Hanging Rock.
The film then cuts to Hanging Rock itself, seen from below. The subtle tremble of the camera gives the sense that we’re looking at these boulders from the girls’ point of view. This pair of shots illustrates both the sheer size of the rocks, as well as the girls’ relationship to them.
At this point, the music becomes noticeably more dramatic as the four girls continue their way up Hanging Rock. They are again obscured by the vegetation, as they were earlier. This time, though, the camera pans away from the girls and up at both the lush canopy and Hanging Rock itself. The camera continues to rotate, in what feels like more than a full circle, before returning to a shot of the girls disappearing around a corner. This rotating camera makes the forest feel infinitely large and gives the viewer a sense of being completely overwhelmed by the trees.
At this point, the girls emerge from the tree line and begin to walk among the towering boulders of Hanging Rock. They are shot from above, again from a distance, and in shadow as they walk among the rocks. The angle, the distance, and the lighting of the shot ensure that the girls are dwarfed by Hanging Rock as they walk through it. The girls are then shown climbing further into Hanging Rock. While the shot beings focusing on the girls, the camera again turns away from them to look up at Hanging Rock looming over them.
The girls emerge into a clearing. Edith is shown sitting on a log complaining about continuing up the hill while the other three girls ignore her and keep walking. This shot frames the four girls in a way that illustrates their relationship to one another. In particular, by having everyone but Edith walk as a group to the foreground paints Edith as the odd one out. Edith is eventually left as the only one in the frame before she gets up and follows the other three. This shot foreshadows the fate of the four girls by indicating that Edith will be left behind by whatever force causes the other three girls to disappear at Hanging Rock.
It’s also at this point that the music transitions away from the dramatic choral music to a low pitched drone which indicates that the girls have reached a different phase of their journey.
The scene cuts to a shot of a narrow passage through the rocks shown from above before panning over to show the girls walking through it. By shooting from directly above, viewers get a sense of the narrowness of the passage along with another illustration of the smallness of the girls in comparison to everything at Hanging Rock.
By the end of the previous shot, the music subsides into a dull roar wind whipping through the rocks. The foreground of the shot is obscured by boulders while we watch the girls pass by a gap. This shot emphasizes the fact that the girls are now within Hanging Rock. During this shot, Miranda stops to look into the gap, but viewers are never shown the object of her attention. She is lit from above by bright sunlight giving her the visage of the Botticelli angels that she was compared to earlier by Mlle. de Poitiers.
A similar shot is repeated, and Miranda is, again, show looking up at something off screen, as though she’s entranced. It’s notable, too, that of the four girls, only Edith isn’t looking up as she walks, as though she isn’t entranced like the other girls.
Through this sequence, viewers follow the four girls as they walk into Hanging Rock. The use of camera angles and shot distance, the film gives off a sense of mystery and accentuates the idea that these girls are being engulphed by the ancient force of nature. It sets up the enigma that will follow.