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Picnic at Hanging Rock: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Picnic at Hanging Rock: Criterion Collection

July 8, 2014

Director: Peter Weir,
Starring: Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson, Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, Dominic Guard, John Jarratt, Jane Vallis, Karen Robson, Christine Schuler, Vivean Gray,

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DVD Review

There is a fascinating air of mystery surrounding Peter Weir’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) that captivated me when I first saw it many years ago and continues to haunt me. While the story is a simple yet intriguing one its lack of closure is not. Several schoolgirls and their teacher go missing on a rather imposing rock out in the countryside on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900. The film tantalizes us with just enough clues and evocative imagery to keep us wondering just what happened. There are no easy answers only several theories and this is what keeps me coming back to the film. It is brilliantly directed by Weir and features a maddeningly elusive screenplay by Cliff Green and memorable performances from a cast largely made up of young girls. But perhaps the best performance comes from the most enigmatic character in the film – the Hanging Rock, an impressive geological formation that manages to be unsettling even on a bright, sunny day. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film that invites repeated viewings because it is the things that are left unsaid and the things that we don’t see that are obsessively analyzed by re-watching what is shown and what we learn from the enticing crumbs of information Weir and Green leave behind.

It is February 14th in 1900 and a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College venture out to Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon in Victoria, Australia for a picnic. The establishing shot is that of the rock and this is significant because in many respects it is the most important thing in the film – the source of mystery. Weir employs some low level sound effects, a combination of wind and subtle rumbling that sets a disquieting mood. He puts us on edge right away as the opening credits play over a montage of the schoolgirls getting ready for their picnic. There are two shots early on that seem to play slightly in slow motion – that of Miranda (Lambert) lying in bed, her eyes opening and looking over at her roommate Sara (Nelson) who smiles back at her in another shot. She does this in an ever so slightly forced way that seems subtly unnatural. It’s hard to put your finger on it but something is slightly off about these two girls.

The headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Roberts) warns the girls not to go exploring the rock and to watch out for venomous snakes and poisonous ants. Are the filmmakers throwing that out there as merely a red herring, another theory to add to the collection? An odd thing happens en route to Hanging Rock. One of the accompanying teachers, Miss McCraw (Gray) dishes factoids about it, in particular the rock’s age, and then goes into something akin to a trance as she talks about how it consists of volcanic rock. This goes on for a few moments before she snaps out of it. Has the rock somehow already put the zap on her? The girls arrive at Hanging Rock and the first shot is a low angle one with it looming ominously over them as they make a toast to St. Valentine. Miranda cuts into a heart-shaped cake with a rather large knife. Interestingly, all the clocks in the party have stopped at 12 and Miss McCraw reckons it is “something magnetic” even though it never happened before.

Marion (Vallis), Miranda, Irma (Robson) and with Edith (Schuler) as a last minute edition, get permission to go up to the rock to make “a few measurements.” Miranda tells her teacher, Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Morse), not to worry as they’ll only be gone a little while. There is a long shot of the girls heading off to the rock. Miranda is last and turns to wave to her teacher. She waves back and Weir cuts to a close-up of Miranda as if to suggest that her teacher and classmates should study this well because it will be the last they’ll see of her. En route to the rock, the girls are spotted by two young men and one of them, Michael (Guard), becomes captivated at the sight of Miranda as evident in the slow motion point-of-view shot of her skipping across a small creek. This is followed by a close-up shot of her looking up at the rock. He is so drawn to her that he finds himself following Miranda to Hanging Rock but for some reason not all the way.

Once at the rock, all the girls look up with only Edith, who asked to come along, refusing to do so. Weir pans the camera around so that we get a real sense of place – the dense vegetation and woods that surrounds the rock and how the environment threatens to envelope the girls even before they ascend further. Once there, he films the girls from high overhead or from narrow passageways as if someone or something is watching them. Miranda seems to be the only one with an inkling of this and seems to be picking up on the rock’s vibe. While an exhausted Edith rests, Miranda and the other girls take their shoes and stockings off and climb further up the rock in their bare feet – rather unladylike at the time. Edith runs after them. The girls climb higher and look down at their classmates on the ground; regarding them rather clinically while Miranda says cryptically, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” Without a word, all four girls lie down simultaneously and go to sleep while the highest most part of the rock watches over them.

Picnic at Hanging Rock’s prevailing theme is that of obsession. First, there is Miranda’s obsession with Hanging Rock. There’s Sara’s obsession with Miranda. Finally, there is Michael’s obsession with finding Miranda, which he passes on to another young man. It is one of those horror films where the environment itself is the threat or monster. There is definitely something not right about Hanging Rock but Weir never tells us for sure. He is content to simply show how it affects those that come in contact with it. This is a film for those that like cinematic puzzles, watching them repeatedly to uncover some clue or detail perhaps overlooked previously. Unlike most horror films, Picnic at Hanging Rock is just as interested in the horrific event as with its aftermath. We see how the incident affects the townsfolk that reside near the school and also get glimpses of how the media have exploited it, shaping people’s views. The disappearance of the girls has shattered lives and left others haunted forever, which Weir suggests are equally disturbing.

Special Features:

Picnic at Hanging Rock looks fantastic on Blu-Ray as its hypnotic mood and atmosphere are preserved through a stunning transfer and excellent audio track that features an absolutely eerie soundtrack.

“David Thomson Introduction” features the noted film scholar putting Weir’s film in the context of Australian cinema at the time it was made and how it ushered in a new sensibility. He also ponders some of the mysteries of the film.

There is a 2003 interview with Peter Weir where he talks about his fascination with the source material and how it drove him to adapt it. He recounts meeting the author on her farm and “auditioning” for her in order to get approval to make the film. He also addresses some of the mysteries contained in the story.

“Everything Begins and Ends.” This is a retrospective featurette with key cast and crew members including Miranda herself, Anne Lambert. The producers take us through the project’s origins while the actresses share filming anecdotes. They offer their impressions of author Lindsay as well.

“A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900” is a vintage 1975 on-the-set documentary that offers a fascinating look at the production. In addition to key cast and crew members, Lindsay is interviewed. They all speak highly of the film as this featurette sheds light on things like the spooky backstory to the building that was used for the school.

“Homesdale” is the 1971 short film that Weir made. It got the attention of executive producer Patricia Lovell who approached him to direct Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Finally, there is a trailer.

Also included is a copy of Lindsay’s book, which is a nice touch.

Unfortunately, it does not have the 90-minute retrospective documentary A Dream Within a Dream that can be found on the U.K. Blu-Ray release or the many extras included on the Second Sight Region 2 DVD.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 97%

Website: http://www.criterion.com/films/565-picnic-at-hanging-rock

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