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Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Review:

Picnic at Hanging Rock
(Deluxe Edition)

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Second Sight
1975 / Colour / 1.78:1 anamorphic 16:9 and 1.66:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 m. and 111 m.
Starring Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver, Anne Lambert, Christine Schuler, Karen Robson, Margaret Nelson, Jane Vallis, John Jarrett
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Art Director David Copping
Film Editor Max Lemon
Original Music Bruce Smeaton
Produced by Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy
Written by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay
Directed by Peter Weir

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

The unnervingly mysterious Picnic at Hanging Rock is a really quite unique film that has intrigued and baffled generations of adventurous film fans. The involving nature of the inexplicable but tragic events depicted in the show results in a disturbing but unforgettable viewing experience. In some ways Picnic at Hanging Rock set the benchmark by which all other enigma-laden cinematic oddities from the 1970s should be judged. As such, Peter Weir's decision to present a director's cut of the film in 1998 that actually excised eight minutes of footage caused some consternation amongst the film's long term fans. That shorter director's cut, which has been the only version of the film to secure a DVD release in any region up to now, is presented here as the main feature. But this superb three disc box set by Second Sight also includes the original theatrical version of the film, which is effectively making its DVD world premiere here.


"On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the [Australian] state of Victoria.

During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace..."

Peter Weir's remarkable film is assembled in a way that invites viewers to draw their own conclusions from its intentionally indeterminate but seemingly symbolic content. It's a mystery without a solution, which means that viewers are largely free to construct their own explanations with regard to what did or did not occur at Hanging Rock on 14th February 1900. In a classic early Savant review, Glenn delivered a thoughtful and in-depth account of the film that, by setting the show's content within its proper social and historical contexts, was able to briefly consider a variety of less-than-supernatural explanations. That original Savant review can be found here. Picnic at Hanging Rock was first recommended to me as a kind of Australian gothic horror show and I actually first encountered the film when it played as part of a season of unusual horror films. As such, I've always primarily engaged with and accepted at face value the seemingly supernatural aspects of the show that Peter Weir subtly but expertly foregrounds. In focusing upon just some of the show's apparently fantastical elements, this review serves to indicate just how wide open to interpretation the film's content actually is.

The film opens with an exterior shot of the Appleyard College: a camera that is initially focused upon an expanse of brown and harshly sun-scorched outback plant growth slowly tilts upwards to reveal the strikingly incongruous presence of a cultivated lush green lawn and an imposing English Georgian-style mansion. A clash of cultures is communicated in this shot, and culture clash is a theme that the film repeatedly returns to via a series of interesting symbolic juxtapositions. But this opening shot is also important because the voice of the head schoolgirl Miranda (Anne Lambert) can be heard talking over it, reciting a line from an Edgar Allen Poe poem: "What we see and what we seem are but a dream. A dream within a dream". Quoted in the context of this antipodean film, Poe's words seem to relate directly to the Australian Aboriginal people's belief in the Dreamtime and the idea that the past, present and future can all somehow co-exist at once.

The next two paragraphs contain spoilers.

Allowing this line of thinking to inform one's reading of the film prompts some interesting results. The film contains a number of lines of dialogue that are seemingly concerned with temporal matters. The characters' conception of time and how they choose to describe and measure it appear to be of some significance here. As such, the idea that the strange occurrences at Hanging Rock demand some kind of abstract metaphysical explanation, like a mystical form of time travel or a sideways journey into an alternate reality or dimension, becomes a possibility. Early in the show, Miranda cryptically warns Sara (Margaret Nelson) that she (Miranda) "won't be here much longer". On the journey to the rock, Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) seemingly becomes possessed, falling into a trance-like state as she explains that, while the rocks surrounding Mt. Macedon are over 350 million years old, the volcanic eruption that created Hanging Rock was a "quite recent" event occurring "only" one million years ago. Irma's (Karen Robson) knowing reply that the rock has been "waiting a million years just for us" seems to imply that she, like Miranda, has an inkling that the party has a pre-arranged date with some kind of supernatural destiny. With all sense of the passing of time seemingly suspended at the rock, the picnickers eventually realize that all of their watches stopped working at exactly the same time. Perhaps significantly, an attempt to find a watch that is working forces Miranda to confess that she no longer wears her once prized timepiece.

When Miranda, Irma, Marion (Jane Vallis) and Edith (Christine Schuler) leave the main party to climb the rock, Miranda advises Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) that the foursome will "only be gone a little while". Once atop the rock, Irma seems to knowingly predict the death of a classmate while Marion becomes distant and coldly philosophical beyond her years, as if she's been possessed by a higher intelligence. When Edith starts panicking, Miranda seemingly bestows a sense of pre-destined inevitability upon the girls' predicament by uttering the words "everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place". A character who visits the rock several days later can seemingly still hear echoes of the girls' voices. When one of the girls is eventually found, it is implied that her physical condition does not reflect the extended amount of time that she has spent on the rock. Finally, the stuttering and undulating panning shot that ends the film seemingly acts as a kind of flashback to the picnic. But it is unsettling in that, when compared to the corresponding shot found in the main body of the film, it shows subtly different events playing out (the reading schoolgirl is now fanning her face, Miss McCraw is not biting on her banana, etc). It's as if we're being shown an alternate reality or time-line where events are unfolding in subtly different ways.

Beyond the cryptic time-related dialogue and occurrences, Weir uses a number of interesting filmic devices to successfully load scenes shot in sunny countryside locations with an atmosphere akin to that of a gothic horror show. The Australian outback in many ways remains a place of intense mystery. It's an alien and impenetrable landscape that is steeped in the rich mystical culture and ages-old legends of the Aboriginal people. Hanging Rock is a vast and very unusual looking geological formation and Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd film its various monolithic offshoots and rambling maze-like passages from angles that give the rock a disturbing and menacing air. Faces can almost be seen in some of the rocks and Boyd's creative cinematography consistently gives the impression that the rock is somehow watching its visitors. At times, animals in the rock's vicinity seemingly become spooked for no apparent reason. Combining shots of the rock that make it look ominous, unwelcoming and brooding with composer Bruce Smeaton's distinctive music results in a particularly eerie atmosphere.

For moments of high supernatural tension, Smeaton uses a Mellotron keyboard to create strange, otherworldly choral effects. The almost Progressive Rock-like nature of some of Smeaton's Mellotron-led pieces neatly feeds into and amplifies the film's apparently mystical aspects. At other times, strange volcanic rumblings, outback noises, subtle film speed tricks, echoed voices and double exposures unnerve and disturb the viewer's sensibilities. Elsewhere Gheorghe Zamfir's remarkable Roumanian pan pipes effectively add to the ages-old feel of the rock and its outback surroundings. The use of choice pieces by Beethoven brings an intensely human and emotional quality to other parts of the film. Beyond setting up the mystery of Hanging Rock, Weir's film also works as a finely observed, and at times heartbreaking, period drama. Uniformly excellent acting and characterization expertly communicate the inevitable sense of sadness and tragedy that pervades this film on a number of different levels. Top-notch cinematography, art direction and costume design work serve to complete the compelling picture found here.

The picture quality of this 1.78:1 presentation of the director's cut is excellent: really colourful, clear and sharp. The sound quality is excellent too. Bruce Smeaton's soundtrack score and the film's unnerving palette of strange sound effects come through loud and clear.

Extra Features:

Second Sight's issue of Picnic at Hanging Rock fully deserves to be considered a Deluxe Edition. The big news here is the inclusion of the long-missed original theatrical version of the film as an extra feature. The master used here has an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and there is evidence of slight cropping at each side of the frame. However the cropping is so marginal that this does not really pose much of a problem. Despite the disclaimer found at the front of the film, the picture and sound quality of this presentation rate pretty good under the circumstances. Original elements for this longer version of the film could not be secured but the master that Second Sight found and restored is surely of a better quality than any earlier television broadcast or VHS presentation of this version of the film.

Second Sight have also provided a further selection of really impressive extra features here. A Dream Within A Dream is a 113 minute long 'making of' documentary from 2004 that is as good as they come. Thorough and comprehensive, this show crams more pertinent information about its subject matter into its first fifteen minutes than most DVD documentaries manage to fit into their fifty minute run times. Most of the show's running time is taken up by first hand testimony as told by executive producer Pat Lovell, co-producers Hal and Jim McElroy, director Peter Weir, screenwriter Cliff Green, book writer Joan Lindsay (archive footage), composer Bruce Smeaton, artistic adviser to the director Martin Sharp, make-up supervisor Jose Perez, cinematographer Russell Boyd and the actors Anne Louise Lambert, Helen Morse, Rachel Roberts (archive footage), Christine Schuler and John Jarratt. There are also some intriguing clips from Peter Weir's early short films included here as well as on set footage relating to Picnic at Hanging Rock and a selection of outtakes lifted from the film's original negative. These include a sequence where Michael (Dominic Guard) has a vision of a naked Miranda in a grotto and a completed but unused alternate ending: this particularly impressive and intriguing sequence involves Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) climbing Hanging Rock and encountering a spectre (or time-traveller) at its summit.

A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900 is a twenty-six minute documentary that was produced on location during the film's shoot. Written and edited by Jacqueline Poynter, the show features its own location footage of Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall (Appleyard College), on set footage of the shoot itself and contemporaneous interviews with Joan Lindsay, Peter Weir, Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy. The Joan Lindsay Interview is a fascinating fifteen minute television interview from 1975. Lindsay is an interesting, modest and self-deprecating interviewee but her comments regarding Picnic at Hanging Rock only serve to add to the sense of mystery and intrigue that surround the book and the film. Strangely enough, most of the extra features found here feature some element that serves to add to the aforementioned sense of mystery and intrigue. A fifteen-minute audio interview with Karen Robson who played Irma is chatty and informative. The Day of Saint Valentine consists of four minutes of clips from an amateur version of the film that was attempted in 1969 by thirteen year old Anthony S. Ingram. Shot silently on black and white 16mm film and subtitled for its appearance here, Ingram provides an audio commentary for the remarkably professional looking footage. The Then and Now featurette employs video as well as still shots for its comparisons. At times the makers boldly attempt to replicate some of Weir and Boyd's camera moves. The scenes deleted for the director's cut are also gathered together here and a collection of stills and posters is accompanied by Helen Morse reading from a section of the book.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Picnic at Hanging Rock rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The original version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, A Dream Within A Dream (documentary), A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900 (documentary), Joan Lindsay interview, Karen Robson interview, Hanging Rock & Martindale Hall: Then and Now, The Day of Saint Valentine, deleted scenes and an image gallery.
Packaging: Fold out digi-pack encased in a card sleeve
Reviewed: July 10, 2008

© Copyright 2008 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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