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Rock star Courtesy Picnic Productions

Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda Courtesy Picnic Productions

Rock star

by Jennifer Coombes, 3 May 2018

Film stills photography is a complex and fascinating sub-genre of photographic portraiture. Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits – the National Portrait Gallery and National Film and Sound Archive’s collaborative exhibition – explores the way stills photographers operate in a dualistic setting, inhabiting both the functional reality of the film set and the fictional world being created for audiences. It sees them creating both portraits of actors and portraits of actors’ characters – as well as those intriguing, illustrative moments ‘in between’ – with the resulting images defined in correspondingly diverse ways: as movie publicity shots, as documentary photography, as fine art. 

The stills from director Peter Weir’s iconic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) embody this melding of fantasy and reality; it’s hard to tell where actor Anne-Louise Lambert ends and her character Miranda begins. Picnic, based on Joan Lindsay’s novel, is one of Australia’s most famous 1970s new wave films. It hovers delicately between lush costume drama and horror, and its publicity campaign focuses on Miranda, one of the schoolgirls who vanished at that fateful picnic on Valentine’s Day 1900. As described by one reviewer: ‘she was the beautiful girl who leads her classmates into oblivion’.   

Executive producer Patricia Lovell approached Weir about directing the film in 1973, giving him the book to read. He said in a 1977 interview:  ‘I could not get the book out of my mind … from that moment on I simply had to make the film’. However, it took Lovell another two years to convince investors.  

The plot is revealed with a text insert in the first frame of the film: ‘On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without trace …’

There are few plot surprises from this point on, although the viewer may believe (or hope) they will ultimately be provided with a solution to the mystery. Weir admitted he worked hard to ‘hypnotise the audience away from the possibility of solutions’. It feels dream-like the last time we see the four schoolgirls: Miranda, clever Marion, elegant Irma, and awkward Edith. Edith watches her companions glide off in silence, as if they’re being pulled further into the Rock by a supernatural force. The camera turns away as she screams.  Their disappearance, and that of college governess Miss McCraw, leaves a sense of emptiness, filled by a growing dread and hysteria through the rest of the film. Miranda appears to embrace her end, and, having earlier spoken in disturbingly fatalistic terms to one of her schoolfriends, to have almost known it was coming from the outset. Conversely, other characters engage in a kind of war with their surroundings, composed of rocks framed like ominous monoliths. Spiritual and material ruin awaits many of those left behind, courtesy of the trauma and torment of the unsolved mystery.

In Janelle McCulloch’s Beyond the Rock (2017), Weir, scriptwriter Cliff Green, and cinematographer Russell Boyd all spoke about the way the ‘rich, painterly layers’ of Joan Lindsay’s original novel inspired the film’s aesthetic. They wanted to create a film that celebrated Australian impressionist painting. Weir’s intensely romantic images emphasise the idea of mysterious femininity. Other characters compare Miranda, in her white dress, to swans and Botticelli angels. The effect is created through soft-focus, diffused lighting and slow-motion photography. Those motifs appear in the publicity material, including the on-set stills, lobby cards and posters, one of which includes Miranda’s face superimposed over Hanging Rock itself. 

The stills photographer, David Kynoch, worked on a number of seminal Australian films in the late 1970s, including My Brilliant Career, Storm Boy and The Last Wave. Lambert recalls him being ‘quiet, polite and unassuming’. The emphasis on Lambert’s Miranda in the film’s publicity stills reflects the intense focus of Weir’s camera on her in the early scenes, including those leading to the group’s disappearance at the Rock. During the sequence when the four schoolgirls start climbing, there are approximately twenty scenes cut together, with the focus on Miranda leading the group. She is the one who knows where they’re going.  

Although physically onscreen for less than half of the film, Miranda is central to the narrative’s dream-like unease. The black and white photograph of her displayed in Starstruck was taken during an early scene, soon after the school party arrives at the Rock. Like many portraits in the exhibition, it explores portraiture’s ‘sustaining tension’: the divide between performance and reality. The portrait shows Miranda as she turns to wave goodbye, with the group setting off on their fateful walk. In this one image, Kynoch captured the atmosphere and story of the film, the mystery of Miranda frozen in the frame, before disappearing forever. And yet it’s not the exact same frame from the film, so is that transformation between actor and character still happening in a re-staged production still? Who is looking out at us from this portrait – are we seeing Miranda or Lambert?  According to the actress, it is both, although she admitted that, because the photographs were taken between scenes, it meant she was recreating that same narrative moment. 

The white muslin school dress worn by Miranda was displayed next to this portrait in the exhibition. Made under the supervision of designer Judith Dorsman, it was intended to be an authentic replica of tea-dresses of the era, with a drawstring waist, pintuck pleating and lace inserts. A daisy motif decorates the cotton lace trim on the sleeves and collar, and the pink ribbon holds a metal butterfly buckle.  Daisies were Miranda’s favourite flower, and the life of a butterfly is brief but beautiful. Together, the work of the stills photographer and costume designer create a space between fiction and reality, enmeshed with the actor’s performance. Lambert herself felt the costume was an essential part of her transformation into character, as she recalled in email correspondence:

The costume certainly helped me in the process of becoming Miranda. From the beautifully made underclothes to that lovely dress with the daisies in the lace and the butterfly belt, I was clothed in the symbols of her innocence and lightness of being. Those were the qualities Miranda embodied and to play her I had to embody them too. A child of nature and an angel ... at the same time!

In her autobiography, producer Patricia Lovell recalled that she and Weir were looking for old-fashioned faces. They ‘didn’t want modern-looking girls’, notes Lovell. ‘He had a great eye for the right face. One of Peter Weir’s much admired directorial styles is his ability to convey emotion through close-ups of the human face, as a moving image.’

Weir spoke about this in more detail in a 1993 interview with Movieline Magazine: ‘The great discovery of the cinema … is the close-up. No one has come up with anything more extraordinary. With a great screen 30 feet across, to see a face, every line, every movement of every muscle, and wonder who is it inside that face?’

1 Poster daybill,. 2 Poster for German re-release, 1990. Both Courtesy Picnic Productions.

The process of casting the schoolgirls for Picnic took time, especially the role of Miranda. Weir remembered that Lambert ‘tested wonderfully and looked superb’ but initially seemed a little too sophisticated. He was keen to bring a sense of innocence to the role, but when he called her back for a second test, he realised that this quality was exactly right: ‘Miranda was not like the other girls … and a wonderful and critical casting was made.’ Unlike her school friends, Miranda possessed an otherworldly wisdom. She tells her room-mate, the tragic orphan Sara, she must learn to love others.  Sara later confides: ‘Miranda knew lots of things that other people don’t.  Secrets.’  In the cutting room, Weir decided that he missed the presence of Lambert in the latter stages of the film and brought her back in several dream-like sequences, linking her to a swan on the lake of the Fitzhubert property.

Lambert desperately wanted the role, recalling, ‘I really thought I was born to play that part!  It was my destiny to play that part!’ She remembers meeting Weir for coffee, and him talking about the quality and light he wanted to achieve. Her ‘perfect, melancholy radiance’, as it was described by one critic, attained an added poignancy following her admission in 2015 during a public program at the NFSA that she felt quite lonely during the film’s shooting and didn’t develop a rapport with the rest of the cast: ‘I felt a little bit out of things … I missed my family, I felt lonely. I didn’t fit in too well with the girls … It was a strange time and a lonely time and it really contrasted with … playing Miranda who was such a golden girl, so accepted, so loved, so part of everything. I was having a very different experience I have to say on-set.’

1 Miranda’s dress, designed by Judith Dorsman,. 2 Poster for director's cut of the film, 1999 ,. Both Courtesy Picnic Productions.

It was a meeting on-set with the author Joan Lindsay that allowed Lambert to connect to her performance: ‘We were all heading down to lunch … and I saw this old lady who I knew had to be Joan Lindsay. She came up to me and just threw her arms around me and while she held me she said in my ear “Oh Miranda it’s been so long” and she was shaky in my arms. And then she just looked at me really warmly and her eyes had tears in them … I just felt in that moment if I was Miranda for her, if I was okay for her and she believed in me, that I was okay … it led me to believe that Miranda has existed in Joan’s life, that she was based on a real person and that there was something very true about this story.’

Lambert remembers that whilst the process of being photographed on-set usually happened between takes, and often felt hurried, it wasn’t always the case: ‘At times, for significant scenes it would be given more time and focus. It was woven into the filming of the day, an integral part of the whole … when I was being photographed on-set it was often between shots. I was in character to some extent, almost modelling whatever had been just acted, recreating the moment as best as I could, silently and still.’

When asked about the interplay between reality and representation, Lambert believed at the time Kynoch was photographing Miranda, the character. Over time it has become more complicated, more layered, for her. ‘I now see in the work the portrait of me as a young woman as well.’

A number of the stills photographers represented in Starstruck have observed that the portrait is strongest when the character of the film shines through, and that a pivotal part of the job is assisting the actor to hold character. David Kynoch’s portrait of Anne Lambert in Picnic at Hanging Rock embodies many of the themes explored in the exhibition – the tension between performance and truth; between actor and character; and that instance where a whole story is captured in a single frame – the ethereal enigma of a character who vanishes from the audience’s gaze, but remains frozen in the frame, haunting the film and its audience in perpetuity.

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