Criterion // 1975 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // August 31st, 1999
"Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place." -- Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock
Picnic at Hanging Rock is widely considered the seminal work of director Peter Weir, as it was one of his first large scale works, and undoubtedly the one which launched him to stardom as a director of such excellent films as The Truman Show, and Dead Poet's Society.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the first Criterion Collection films I ever saw on DVD. It is largely responsible for my interest in the company and the rest of their film library. As much as I loved this film, I loved it even more watching it a second time over the weekend. The real problem I have is trying to describe it in sufficient terms, worthy terms.
Since this film does not lend itself to our typical review methods, I will not even try. Outlining the plot would be largely foolish, but for the crux of the film, which is thus; at the turn of the century, a local group of college girls and their teacher picnic at a local volcanic outcropping called Hanging Rock in Australia. During the picnic, four of the girls wander up the mound and one runs down screaming. The remaining three literally disappear, along with the teacher who went searching after the other three.
There is literally no narrative to carry this film. Rather we as viewers are carried through as voyeurs looking through a window at a specific time and place, exactly as Miranda says as she climbs the face of the rock. Weir manages to create a horror film without horror and a mystery without resolution. In the end we are left with only our imagination to help us discover exactly what happened to these Victorian girls. All we know is they have disappeared. Did they fall down a cave? Were they raped and murdered? Were they captured by aliens? Were they brought home by the Almighty? Was Miranda actually a Boticelli Angel in the flesh? There is literally no resolution, or even clues that might lead you to believe any of these suppositions.
The video here is simply beautiful. Bathed in rich and lush earth tones of gold, brown, and green, the scenery nearly drips with extra paint falling from the artist's brush. The composition of each frame is succinct and to the point, with little wasted effort. This film is not nearly as sharply detailed as our finest examples on DVD. However, it is gorgeous in its own right. The picture is deliberately soft and muted but not in a distracting or bad way. Rather, the video is wistful and dreamy, setting the mood of the film in a way that is nearly ethereal.
The soundtrack is a newly minted 5.1 version which, like the video transfer, was supervised by director Weir. While the soundtrack is littered with classical concertos from the most famous composers, I remember nearly nothing but the captivating sounds of Zamfir's Pan Flute, which can fairly be called the "theme" of the film. It resonated so hard through my chest I can imagine it lingering there for weeks. It too sets a mood for the viewer, and one that is equally as confusing and mesmerizing as the cinematography.
The acting here is fine, but hardly what carries the film. Instead, the film clearly is more of a mood piece than anything else. But what a mood piece it is.
My only negative comment is I would have like to see more extras included with Picnic at Hanging Rock. As it stands we are given only the original theatrical trailer to the film. While a commentary would have been nice, I can see the director's desire to not solve any of the questions posed by the film. Still, a commentary track could have shed some interesting light on the technicals of the film too.
As stated above, this film is more of an experience than a story. If you need a tidy ending to your movies, don't bother. Similarly, if you prefer mindless action flicks, keep your $30. But, if you enjoy a period piece with haunting music and beautiful cinematography, then give Picnic at Hanging Rock a try.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Liner Notes