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Our review of Picnic At Hanging Rock: Criterion Collection, published August 31st, 1999, is also available.
What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.
After a strong start in the early days of cinema, Australia went through a decades-long drought where nobody saw their films and the industry dwindled to nothing. Then, in the early 1970s, the government stepped in and started funding a new generation of filmmakers. One of the beneficiaries of this was young director Peter Weir. He made a splash with his 1974 film, The Cars that Ate Paris, but it was his next film that would cinch him as one of the greatest his nation produced. Strange, lyrical, and often frightening, Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the few from the era regarded by the world as a true classic, has now received a gorgeous new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
It's Valentine's Day, 1900, and a group of Australian boarding school girls and their teachers board a boat to the foreboding Hanging Rock for a nice picnic. Three of the girls and a teacher disobey orders and go wandering up the rock, but one returns, but with no memory of what happened. Now she must return to the school with the rest, who now must live with what happened and deal with its aftermath.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the rare movie with a meaning or an interpretation that is completely adaptable to the viewer's feelings. Personally, with the movie's use of bizarre camera angles and monstrous sound design, I see it as almost a horror movie. Four young women do disappear, after all. If you wanted to claim some kind of sexual metaphor, though, I wouldn't argue the point. Likewise, I'd agree that there's a lot of stuff about manners, the privileged, and the clash between society and nature. Considering that I know relatively little about Australia, there's probably much more that goes over my head.
It really is one of the most enigmatic films I've ever seen. This goes from the ethereal, painterly shooting style (cinematographer Russell Boyd, Tin Cup, placed a bride's stocking over the lens to achieve the famously diffused look) all the way to the non-ending of the story.
The lack of a solution is, for some, unsatisfying. Seeing a mystery in what happened to these girls, there is good reason to believe there will be some kind of resolution. This becomes especially true after Irma (Karen Robson, Affliction) returns without her memory and little clues are found on the rock, but then it all just becomes about the people who didn't disappear. The fate of the school finances becomes more important as an overall theme than the mystery and, while it's part of the point, it can come across a little underwhelming. It is faithful to Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel, however, and neither can be faulted for leaving the enigma intact (Lindsay herself had an answer in a cut final chapter published after her death. They made the right choice; her idea was ridiculous).
Plus, in a way, Picnic at Hanging Rock is even eerier because of it, as though this is something that happens every so often on the rock and just has to be endured. Why else would the headmistress stress all the dangers and horrors of the place before sending them on a day trip? Add into that the reappearance of the ultra-charismatic lead girl Miranda (Anne Lambert, The Draughtsman's Contract) as a kind of ghost or vision to one of the local boys who grieves her death, and you wind up with something terribly unsettling.
The performances are perfect for the mannered roles they have to play, with a coldness that matches the atmosphere very well. Weir's creepy direction, the use of jarring sound effects, and the brilliantly effective score by Master of the Pan Flute Zamfir, all make for a truly brilliant picture. Picnic at Hanging Rock can be slow, but it feels very good. It's almost unique in how it almost seems to float along above the ground, almost like the movie itself is some kind of ghost. While it's never scary, it has the exact feeling of menace that really great horror movies deliver; for that to come in what is, in so many ways, a period drama, is something special.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was an early release for the Criterion Collection, twenty-nine, to be exact, and this new Blu-ray shows exactly how much technology has improved since 1998. The 1.78:1/1080p director-approved transfer wasn't done specifically for this release, but the work is still incredible. The image will always look a little soft; it's intentional, but the detail present on the frame is far greater than I've ever seen it. Whites are exceedingly bright and clean, while flesh tones are warm and accurate. Really, the clarity throughout reinforces just how much detail went into the sets and costume design, making the movie even better than it was before.
Same goes for the sound. While some might argue with a 5.1 Master Audio remix is impure, or whatever, but the fullness of the track makes the score and sound effects that more menacing. The atmosphere it creates is incredible and the Zamfir's music, beautiful on its own, takes on a whole new life with this release.
Extras on and off the disc are what make this one of the best discs so far this year. Aside from the two-DVD version of the presentation, the customary essay booklet, and a trailer, the Blu-ray contains:
• A new 10-minute "introduction" with film scholar David Thomson, who discusses the themes and storytelling style that we're about to witness.
• A 25-minute interview with Weir from 2003, who recollects his place in the Australian New Wave, as well as his memories of the film's production and his impressions of the original novel.
• Everything Begins and Ends—A new 30 minute documentary exploring the story of the production through modern interviews and production footage.
• A Recollection…Hanging Rock (1900)—A second documentary, also half an hour, which discusses the entire production, from the location and the novel to its production and release.
• Homesdale—Peter Weir's 1971 short film that gave producers the notion that he was the one to adapt Joan Lindsay's novel. In his interview, Weir claims to not understand why it was the thing that convinced them, but with its black comedy look at class and manners in a bizarre situation, it really made perfect sense.
• A new paperback edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is really a fantastic extra, because the novel has been out of print in the United States for years. This is a brilliant inclusion that caps off a top-shelf release.
One of the most enigmatic and beautiful movies ever made, Picnic at Hanging Rock is really something on Blu-ray. You could tell what the movie looked like on Criterion's 1998 DVD, but now you can actually appreciate how amazing Weir's masterpiece looks. There is no question about a recommendation; the upgrade is dramatic and fans owe it to themselves to get this set.
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