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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Picnic at Hanging Rock


Peter Weir was a leading figure in the Australian New Wave cinema movement, with films such as the mystery drama "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975), the supernatural thriller "The Last Wave" (1977) and the historical drama "Gallipoli" (1981).

Even though "Picnic at Hanging Rock" has lost some its credibility in the age of the mobile phone, it's still as haunting as it was then. There's no full-length copy of it on YouTube, but there is of "The Last Wave", which is about a white solicitor in Sydney whose seemingly normal life is disrupted after he takes on a murder case and discovers that he shares a strange, mystical connection with the small group of local Aboriginal people accused of the crime.

The film opens with a montage of scenes of daily life in Australia in the 1970s: a rural school in the desert, the main street of an outback town, a traffic jam in the city, all being affected by unusually adverse weather conditions that suddenly appear. Only the local Aboriginal people seem to recognize the cosmological significance of these weather phenomena.

During one of these "freak rainstorms" in Sydney, an altercation occurs among a group of Aborigines in a pub, which results in the mysterious death of one of them. At the coroner's inquest, the death is ruled a homicide; and four men are accused of murder. Through the Australian Legal Aid system, David Burton is procured for their defence. The circumstances by which he was contacted and retained are unusual, in that his law practice is corporate taxation and not criminal defense. He nonetheless takes on the case, and his professional and personal lives begin to unravel.

Plagued by bizarre dreams, Burton begins to sense an otherworldly connection to one of the accused. He also feels connected to the increasingly strange weather phenomena besetting the city. His dreams intensify along with his obsession with the murder case, which he comes to believe is an Aboriginal tribal killing by curse, in which the victim believed. Learning more about Aboriginal practices and the concept of Dreamtime as a parallel world of existence, Burton comes to believe the strange weather bodes of a coming apocalypse.

The film climaxes in a confrontation between the lawyer and the tribe's shaman in a subterranean sacred site. Overcoming the shaman, Burton escapes to the surface, but in the tunnel loses various tribal relics. After emerging from the sewer, he collapses on the beach and stares entranced at the horizon. The screen is filled by the shot of a towering ocean wave, though it remains unclear whether we are witnessing reality or sharing in Burton's final, apocalyptic premonition.

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