A Look at Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Dead Poets Society

As my last blog post covered, I recently watched The Good Wife, which starred Josh Charles, whose other main credit was Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society. I hadn’t watched that film in years and had a sudden yearning to revisit it.

I was an undergraduate student when it first came out back in 1989. My friends and I saw it multiple times (films were cheap back then where I went to university). For all its familiarity, the two trigger points still triggered me. I rarely cry at films or TV, but Dead Poets gets me in two scenes because the film spoke to me on a profound level. It still speaks to me, but it’s different now.

Back then my wounds still bled, and I’m not writing entirely figuratively.

I went to a single-sex high school. State-run, but it had pretensions of being private and exclusive. My years spanned the 1980s when there was a bit of a backlash against the social progress of the 1960s and 1970s. None of this is clear-cut, of course, with different bits moving at different speeds. My school was ruled by a woman who insisted on being called Head Mistress – none of that gender-neutral Principal rot for her. She was enthralled by Ronald Reagan, and went to the USA to witness his second inauguration. On return she expressed her wish that Australians would emulate the US form of overt patriotism. I remember teachers had issue with her approach, and as I grew older and experienced the beginnings of friendship with some of them I learned their concern was about how she nurtured a school that excelled in all the classes that would turn unruly girls into good wife material.

Only the real world intervened, and the state curriculum ensured that we got a late 20th century education. However, I didn’t quite fit in and I ended up repeating my final year of senior high school at an independent school that I thrived in. That’s life, and decades on the pain of living it has receded.

Parts of my experiences were what made me identify with Neil Perry and his struggle to be free to explore his talent. His tragedy is and always has been that he merely stretched the confines of his life, not break it, and yet he saw death as his only way out. His talent was acting, mine writing and the intellectual pursuits of history and politics.

As a school kid, and throughout my university years, I detested public speaking of any kind. I liked to write the words for others to speak. I was called shy, but really it was introversion. If I ever do write a letter to my teenaged self, a large paragraph would be all about how I needn’t worry about that. Confidence will deal with most of it, but also I have never felt the need to just talk unless I have something to say. I am still that way.

So. Yes. I identified strongly with Todd Anderson.

Watching Dead Poets back now from the advantage of someone who has done pretty well in realising my dreams, and has learned a lot about how the world works, that shyness and introversion still resonate. Stronger, if anything. Todd’s confused, panicked bravery at the end when he confronts the Head Master to tell his teacher, Mr Keating, that he was forced to lie is an emotional punch because he is fighting so much to just speak. That and his reaction to the news of Neil’s death are the two scenes that get me every time. His normal desire to hide destroyed because of his all-consuming grief.

But, this watch I also saw the raw pain expressed by Neil’s parents.

That’s Weir’s genius as a director. The small, powerful scenes. Mostly unspoken. I think I had unconsciously picked up on it when I consciously identified so strongly with the kids. Now, as an adult, it’s undeniably there. So much depth in a short film by today’s standards.

I decided to then watch Weir’s earlier film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (the 1998 director’s cut). It’s another favourite of mine that I have watched many times, but I’ve never watched these two sequentially.

What struck me were the similarities between the two films. There are the obvious points: the strict school principals, the sensitive child who doesn’t fit in, the inspiring teacher who doesn’t fit the school’s restrictive ethos, the rebellion by the kids, the forbidden infatuation of the other by an outsider, and the death by suicide of a kid who sees no way out even though escape is arguably nearby. Both schools are steeped in British tradition in their new lands. Both films are of their landscapes, too, and hint at the past, restive human occupants that the white people blunder into. Both films are fascinating character studies, beautifully shot and underplayed, but with moments of explosive emotion.

There are obvious differences. Gender the main one, at least on the surface. Miss Appleyard’s college is run by women for girls; Welton Academy is run by men for boys. Having said that, the male world of Dead Poets Society is not particularly masculine. In fact, it questions it and pokes at it from a few different angles. Neither at the time I first watched them, nor now, did I feel any attraction to any of the characters. I identified with some, their problems and struggle to be themselves yes, but I never fantasised about any desires for them. I never saw them as sexual beings.

Both films are really more about class and colonialism, with a culture uprooted from Britain and transplanted to two different post-colonial white nations. Both films examine class through the lens of the past; 1900 and the 1959. Both show the clash of the lower classes played out by kids who cannot control how that clash affects their lives. Neither Sarah (the orphan from Picnic) nor Neil can cope when that clash threatens their lives and dreams – for Sarah the knowledge that Miranda will never reappear and that she is destined for poverty, for Neil the knowledge that acting is forbidden him and that he is destined to a military academy to entrench him in the upper middle class.

Both films are set on the cusp of times of great liberating change, too, for each country.

Picnic is based rather closely on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, but Dead Poets had an original screenplay by Tom Schulman. Weir had a lot of creative control over both films, and I wonder how many of these thematic echoes were simply just what happens or were at any time deliberate.

If you’ve not seen either film, I highly recommend both.