If you've never seen Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), you probably won't learn much from any conventional review or summary...and at worst, you'll learn too much. It was only the director's second feature-length film, made a full decade before he dazzled American audiences with Witness; since then, Weir has maintained a strong track record of intelligent, atmospheric and accessible films. Yet none are as atmospheric as Picnic at Hanging Rock, a hazy and dream-like production based on author Joan Lindsay's eponymous 1967 novel. We're introduced to the prim and proper young girls of Victoria, Australia's Appleyard College, a private school run by stern headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). It's Valentine's Day in the year 1900, and a group of the girls are headed to nearby Hanging Rock for an outing. Only the neglected Sara (Margaret Nelson) is asked to remain behind; she's bullied by Mrs. Appleyard and reacts accordingly.
Sara's lucky for the punishment, though. Despite a pleasant beginning, the girls' picnic turns into a waking nightmare when three of them disappear without a trace after wandering away from the group to take measurements of the landscape. The absent include beautiful and perpetually praised Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson). Our lone eyewitness is the ever-complaining Edith (Christine Schuler), who tagged along and last saw them wander away in a trance-like state. Also unaccounted for is chaperone Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), who left the group below and was last seen by Edith going up the mountainside in a state of undress. Naturally, the remaining girls return to the college late and in despair, much to the dismay of Mrs. Appleyard and the other staff members. A massive police search and media firestorm ensues, and the once peaceful school is now the center of controversy, suspicion and public scorn.
There aren't many clues offered during Picnic at Hanging Rock, at least enough to provide an air-tight conclusion (or obvious culprit) for those who require such a thing. Before the disappearance, we get bits and pieces that something mysterious is afoot: several watches stop at noon, interested young men gaze at the soon-to-be missing girls from afar and, of course, the ominous backdrop of Hanging Rock itself. Injured in a fall? Lost? Kidnapped? Whether through more predictable means or a "Bermuda Triangle" occurrence, once thing's for sure: it's unlikely that all three will return...and even if they do, they'll undoubtedly be in rough shape. Weeks pass, and a glimmer of hope just leads to more unanswered questions.
While it lasts (and despite the undercooked mystery at its center), Picnic at Hanging Rock casts quite a spell. Beautiful slow-motion sequences, a hazy summer backdrop and haunting music cues will lull many first-time viewers into a peaceful state, while other moments slap us with the confusion of reality. These factors definitely give Picnic at Hanging Rock a "mood piece" mentality, much like the films of Terrence Malick or David Gordon Green's George Washington. Yet Picnic at Hanging Rock goes down a little easier; though frustrating as a narrative and mystery, its purposefully incomplete plot becomes more acceptable after several viewings. It's also prefaced by a statement that implies we're about to see something based on a true story, which most certainly isn't the case. Though misleading statements like this are often flaky in practice, it's obvious that Weir and company just wanted us to take the film's unsolved mystery at face value.
Criterion's new "Dual Format" release might be one of their last combo packs; either way, any disc in this package easily outpaces the studio's own 1998 DVD. Featuring a beautiful A/V presentation and a handful of supplements (including the source novel, long out-of-print in the U.S.), it's a hefty package that will please long-tine fans and tempt new ones.
Recently restored for several different international Blu-ray releases, Picnic at Hanging Rock looks quite true to its source material. This director-approved transfer features solid image detail, an accurately warm color palette, excellent contrast and no obvious blemishes and/or excessive digital manipulation. The film's dreamlike visuals---obtained, in some cases, by techniques like putting a sheer stocking over the camera lens---aren't exactly razor sharp but perfectly beautiful in their own right. Not surprisingly, some mild flickering and other anomalies could be spotted during slow-motion sequences, but these were most likely unavoidable facets of the source material. Overall, Criterion's new Blu-ray offers a consistently strong presentation that long-time fans should appreciate. For those limited to standard definition, it's also worth noting that the DVD is also sourced from the new master and not just a port of Criterion's non-anamorphic 1998 release.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
Not surprisingly, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix packs a wallop on certain occasions, while other stretches are much more subdued. The music's weight gets an especially nice boost from this lossless presentation and the ominous rumble of Hanging Rock has never been more intimidating. Dialogue is also crisp and easy to follow, the score is well-balanced and neither one fights for attention very often. No obvious hiss, clicks or other audio anomalies were detected along the way, rounding out the technical presentation nicely. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.
Presented in Criterion's typical style for both formats, the menus load quickly and are easy to navigate. Like many of the studio's remaining "Dual Format" titles, this three-disc release arrives in a handsome digipak case with overlapping spindles for the DVDs. Also included is a rather nice Booklet featuring material by author Megan Abbott and film critic Marek Haltof, as well as a full Paperback Edition of Joan Lindsay's source novel. The paperback is an especially nice little bonus, as it's been out of print in the U.S. for some time now and I'd imagine that most anyone new to the film has yet to read it.
Almost everything you'd expect, save for an audio commentary. Leading things off is an Introduction by film scholar David Thomson (10 minutes) which offers a few personal interpretations of the film's themes and loose ends. Three like-minded Featurettes are also here; the first two, "Everything Begins and Ends" (31 minutes) and "A Recollection: Hanging Rock 1900" (27 minutes) are partially sourced from 2003 interviews with key cast and crew members and provides nice retrospective accounts of the film's production and lasting influence. The third is a 2003 interview with director Peter Weir (25 minutes), who give us a broader look at the film's history, its place within Australian cinema, the casting process and a few comments about Joan Lindsay's source novel. Please note that some of these featurettes have been ported over from various international releases of of Picnic at Hanging Rock, though I'd imagine they'll be new to most viewers.
Aside from the film's Theatrical Trailer, the last supplement is Peter Weir's sophomore short film, Homesdale (51 minutes), a 1971 black comedy featuring appearances by Grahame Bond ("The Aunty Jack Show"), Kate Fitzpatrick (A World Apart) and others. Though thematically it has little in common with the main feature, this short was quite well-received in the director's home country and led to Weir being approached by producer Patricia Lovell to eventually direct Picnic at Hanging Rock. Not surprisingly, though, optional English subtitles have not been included for any of these bonus features.
Almost 40 years later, Peter Weir's landmark Picnic at Hanging Rock is still a tough nut to crack. First-time viewers will be drawn in and pushed away in equal measure by the film's hypnotic visuals and undercooked mystery elements, yet the final product remains more than the sum of its parts. Weir would go on to direct more accessible fare like Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but anyone with a soft spot for dreamlike, late Victorian-era visuals will have no problems jumping right in. Long-time followers of the film should be enormously pleased with Criterion's new "Dual-Format" package, which serves up a terrific A/V presentation, a handful of appropriate extras and even a paperback edition of Joan Lindsay's out-of-print source novel. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.