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Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Anne Lambert, Jacki Weaver
Length: 107 min
Disks: 3 (1 BD, 2 DVD)
Label: Criterion Collection
Release Date: Jun 17, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
- Extended interview with Peter Weir
- New piece on the making of the film, featuring interviews from 2003 with executive producer Patricia Lovell, producers Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy, and cast members
- New introduction by film scholar David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
- A Recollection . . . Hanging Rock 1900 (1975), an on-set documentary hosted by Lovell and featuring interviews with Weir, actor Rachel Roberts, and source novel author Joan Lindsay
- Homesdale (1971), an award-winning black comedy by Weir
- A booklet featuring an essay by author Megan Abbott and an excerpt from film scholar Marek Haltof’s 1996 book Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide (dual-format only); a new paperback edition of Lindsay’s novel, previously out of print in the U.S. (dual-format only)
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the film credited with jump-starting Peter Weir’s illustrious career. Few directors can boast an oeuvre as diverse and emotionally dense as Weir’s, known for his Academy Award nominated films Witness, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander. Starring Anne-Louise Lambert, Helen Morse, Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, and Dominic Guard, this Australian film was adapted from the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay. Set in 1900, the film recounts a group of schoolgirls and their teacher who vanish after embarking on St. Valentine’s Day picnic at a geological outgrowth known as “Hanging Rock.” But what makes the film an exceptional horror film lies in Peter Weir’s portrayal of the local community and their reaction to this mysterious disappearance.
As one of the most influential Australian movies in film history, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film that is more than just open for interpretation. The film contains an air of mysticism, which is inseparable both from the real story and from Lindsay’s novel. The difference lies in Weir’s ability to tell such a sorrowful story through his poetic visual style, and a markedly tense and disquieting tone.The film’s striking use of light and color depicts emotions and feelings in places where dialogue could not even scratch the surface. Particularly when the girls venture to Hanging Rock, cinematographer Russell Boyd creates a completely dreamlike layer to the whole film by incorporating soft focus in just the right places. It is no reason that Boyd won the British Society of Cinematographer Award and that Roger Ebert called it a beautifully shot film “…of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria.”
Weir’s film operates on multiple layers. On one hand, the spectator could argue that the schoolgirls were engulfed by some supernatural force related to Hanging Rock. In this way, their disappearance acts as a metaphor, as the Australians culturally had to negotiate themselves between their European ancestors and as inhabitants in this strange, mystic homeland of Aboriginal culture. To continue this metaphor, once the girls encounter this ancient mysticism, Hanging Rock essentially devours them.
However, there is evidence within the film that a group suicide could explain their strange disappearance, and that the leaders at Appleyard College were part of a cover-up. Mrs. Appleyard’s oppressive, draconian personality as headmistress of the school, coupled with the sudden leave of girls from the school, would seem to indicate that someone knows more than they are telling. This aspect of the film is sheer brilliance and demonstrates Weir’s directorial skill. As the schoolgirls are heading to Hanging Rock, Mrs. Appleyard makes a point of saying that they may take off their gloves only if the weather has become unbearably hot.Meanwhile the girls are wearing heavy white garments and constraining corsets. Through such scenes involving Mrs. Appleyard, the oppression of the Victorian Era is given a face. What begins as one older woman telling young girls the “proper way” to curtsy and such, ends with the reveal Mrs. Appleyard has strapped children to walls to correct their posture. Such clues indicate that the girls repeatedly faced this type of abuse prior to their trip. The irony stems from the fact that if Mrs. Appleyard had less obsessed with her job at reforming these girls and been more responsible for her role as guardian, than perhaps a potential cover-up would have been unwarranted in the first place.
And then of course there is the potential that the story is essentially just an unsolved crime of some sort; be it a rape or group murder. The presence of oddly placed male characters, such as a young Englishman named Michael Fitzhubert, who just so happened to be lunching at the Rock with his uncle Colonel Fitzhubert, or the school’s gardener Mr. Whitehead later finding a girls body in the greenhouse. Whatever the case may be, what makes Picnic at Hanging Rock so great is that any of these reasons could have caused their disappearance. In this way, Picnic at Hanging Rock feels very much like the pilot of Twin Peaks before it became so characteristically Lynchian. With suburb acting, a stunning visual quality, and a pensive ambiance, Picnic at Hanging Rock is not only a tough kind of film to make, but it’s also one that risked alienating American audiences through its lack of a concrete, cookie-cutter ending.
Transferred and remastered in high-definition, and supervised by director Peter Weir, the results here look pretty spectacular, even by Criterion’s standards. The beautiful yellow/orange tinge of the film looks wholly authentic and perfectly evokes the primal Australian landscape at the turn of the last century. Detail and image depth are excellent, yet there is no sign of edge enhancement. Fine film grain is present, but not obtrusive. Colors and contrast are stable and very natural looking. In short… Picnic at Hanging Rock receives one of the most beautiful video transfers we have ever seen.
Criterion provides us with only one audio track, but it has been mastered as beautifully as the video. Zamfir’s evocative pan flute is given body and amplitude, and sounds very natural. Dialog is clear and there are no age-related anomalies, such as pops or hiss.
Criterion truly went above and beyond with this Blu-ray release. It should be noted that this film has had multiple re-releases over the years, but this version by Criterion in its thoroughness sets itself apart from all previous releases. This Criterion Blu-Ray release includes the film’s original trailer, an on-set documentary—hosted by Patricia Lovell—entitled, A Recollection… Hanging Rock 1900, an introduction by film theorist David Thomson, an extended interview with Peter Weir, as well as an early short film black comedy from the director called Homesdale, and a making of segment with extensive interviews with cast and crew. This release also contains a booklet with an essay from author Megan Abbott as well as a segment from Weir chronicler Marek Haltof’s 1996 book, “Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide.” On top of that, this release also includes a new paperback version of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which had been out of print in the US. Needless to say, fans of Weir and Australian cinema alike will be more than pleased with the wide array and thoroughly engaging extras this release offers.
In short, what Picnic at Hanging Rock tells us about its director is that he has many cinematic achievements to come. There are traces of Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show here, particularly in his meditative and ponderous tone throughout much of his work. What Picnic at Hanging Rock tells film historians is that the film was instrumental in the emergence of the Australian New Wave movement and its popularity in the US until the mid-late 1980s. But what remains so evocative about Picnic at Hanging Rock is that the audience isn’t exactly sure what the film is telling us. Trying to fully comprehend the film denies it its visceral purpose. Because what it is not telling us, you can feel heavily—a fact that makes the film just as enchanting as it is affecting.