Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 1, 2009  | 
Second Sight (UK). Region 2, PAL. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0. English (FHI) Subtitles. 102 minutes (Director's cut ); 110 minutes (original version)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Anne Lambert, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver
Screenplay: Cliff Green
Country: Australia
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Some movies make their name through performances, some through action, some through gore-soaked set-pieces, some through dialogue, and some, like Picnic At Hanging Rock, through a haunting atmosphere and beautiful camera work that somehow manages to evoke the feeling of a dream, as well as that of a sense of dread.

Based on Joan Lindsay's novel of the same name, Picnic At Hanging Rock is an iconic piece of Australian cinema. As such, the summary of the plot here will come from that of the original theatrical release (included here on disc two), and not the Director's cut (on disc one), although the audio-visual elements of both will be dealt with in the relevant sections below. Me? I just don't like truncated versions of any film, and I fell in love with the original version well before there was any Director's cut available – in fact, I bought this three disc R2 Deluxe Edition basically because it was the only version of the original theatrical release I could get. I don't like people fucking with my memories, or indeed with the original version of something that didn't need improving – take Blade Runner for example; whenever I watch that film, it's always the much-maligned theatrical release with the noir-esque voice-overs. It's how I first saw it, and how I came to love it.

I always knew Valentine's Day was a bad thing, and this film proves me right. February 14 1900, and a group of rather prim and proper schoolgirls from Appleyard College are going on a picnic to Hanging Rock, near Mt Macedon in rural Victoria. Some of those girls never came back, having disappeared without a trace. "What we see and what we seem, are but a dream, a dream within a dream." As a spoken epigram I can't think of one more appropriate to this oneiric and at times claustrophobic tale.

So yes, Valentine's Day and the girls are all swapping Valentine's cards peppered with canonical love poetry amongst each other, and yet while that might seem a little weird, there's nothing prurient about it – one of the things that makes this film succeed is the air of innocence and purity that comes from the girls generally. They're like a bunch of fragile porcelain dolls, and very girlish they are indeed, most with very breathy, little-girl voices (hardly surprising seeing as how they're all strapped up in corsets so tight I'm amazed they can breathe at all) and about all the worldly experience of a hermit, which I guess, effectively, they are.

After breakfast the girls set off for their picnic, except for poor old Sarah, who has a dreadful crush on Miranda (completely understandable, given that she's played by the astoundingly gorgeous Anne Lambert). As the girls near the Rock, we find that they're not the only folks of breeding in the area (keep your eyes peeled for an early performance by John Wolf Creek Jarrett in an almost unrecognisable role as a roustabout), with a decidedly stuffy family on an afternoon constitutional. The harking back to the Colonial days and the voices of the upper classes really does cement the undebtedness that Australia had to England back in the day. I guess since this is (just) pre-Federation, that's kind of understandable. It does however stick in my craw that we ever could have bought into a class sytem quite so much, and so fully.

The girls arrive at the picnic ground, and act much like young girls will do – lots of excited chatter, lots of sound and fury signifying nothing, and yet some of the older girls, such as Miranda, notice that the horses aren't too keen on the area, nor indeed are much of the local wildlife – and everyone's watches have mysteriously stopped at midday. If this is a horror story (and it is) then it's one following in the tradition of writers like M.R. James – there's a stately pace, quite measured, and much of what you are unsettled by is implicit – there's no beast with fangs here waiting to leap out from behind a convenient tree or rock; it's all about the atmosphere and the unnerving quiet. And so some of the girls go for a bit of a wander after lunch.

The Australian outback is never an appealing place. If things don't look dead, or aren't dead, then they're probably trying to kill you. Anything that's growing that actually still lives is bleached almost white or looks kind of forlorn, or threatening. There's none of the lush greenery that you get to see in the wilds of Europe; it's a cold and inimical locale – think of films as disparate as Long Weekend, Road Games, Razorback or the aforementioned Wolf Creek – the landscape here is as much a character as any of the human players, and in each of the examples given, it's a villain. Left to your own devices out there, you'd die. Going for a stroll in it always seems to me like a very bad idea. Miranda and her gal pals seem hell-bent on proving that – private boarding school girls from the end of the 19th century in the kind of landscape that'd kill a black dog as soon as look at it? Yeah, right – plenty of chance for survival.

Miranda and her three friends wind their way through the labyrinthine passages among the rocks, not wanting to go much further, and yet somehow being drawn on. The atmosphere seems to be growing tense somehow – that claustrophobia I mentioned before is becoming apparent.The mountain seems to be closing in around the girls. And then, for little readily apparent reason, they all fall asleep at the same time on the mountainside – something odd is at work here. On waking, Miranda and two of the girls, Marion and Irma, go for a walk further into the mountain, seemingly drawn by something, while the other freaks out and runs away, screaming, terrified by something she can't see or identify.

The rest of the girls head back to the College, traumatised, and a search party for Miranda and her friends is sent out the next morning. But the clues found add up to nothing, either for Miranda or her two friends or the teacher who mysteriously went up immediately after them (are we meant to understand that she had some insight from the book of science and mathematics she was reading at the picnic? Oooh, now that would be Lovecraftian – remember "The Dreams in the Witch-House"? Mathematics and geometry held the key...). Nothing turns up at all – there's just that cold and implacable Rock. As to what actually happened up there, the mystery continues... And so does the film for some time, but still no solution to the disappearance occurs. One girl, Irma, reappears, but no, she remembers nothing. The multitiudes of people who traverse the mountain afterwards, nope, they've got nothing either. Miranda and Marion and their teacher – they're disturbingly gone for good, and there's never any reason for any of it having happened.

Despite the film happening at the tail end of a brutal Australian summer, it has an all-pervading coldness, an iciness that runs through the entire film. And the lack of finding of the bodies of Miranda and Marion just adds to that. Was there something supernatural happening on the Rock? Or was it just a simple murder? We'll never know, although both unfortunate ends are alluded to in the film. That particular answer is up to you.

Coming from a time when horror from the States had just turned to the gut-wrenchingly bloody, and from the UK had started to shift from Hammer's lush period pieces into something more contemporary and brutal, Picnic At Hanging Rock is somewhat of an oddity in that regard, a film out of its own time; a paean to an age of innocence and yet helplessness at the same time – the girls are so over-protected, cloistered and cossetted that they really would never have a hope in the real world. Maybe that's the metaphor the film is trying to expound – when the girls climb the Rock that's meant to be their entry into the adult world it destroys them utterly, either physically or symbolically, given the fact that they're in no way prepared to meet it head on, as we see from what's on their curriculum – how's learning needlepoint going to get you ahead in the modern world? Possibly that's part of the point Weir was trying to make here – that the way we as a whole, and girls in particular, are taught does not make us ready for entry into society, that we're mere lambs for the slaughter.

The Rock isn't telling.
Crystal clear – pristine to the point of beauty; razor sharp. I can't imagine this film looking any better than it does here, in either version presented in this set. Both versions of the film are presented in Peter Weir's preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio (the original theatrical cut was first screened at 1.78:1, so it is oh-so-slightly cropped in here) and anamorphically enhanced, Picnic At Hanging Rock in either version looks a million bucks. Someone thankfully spent a great deal of time and love in restoring this film to its fin-de-siecle beauty.
Similarly, the sound is crystal clear. This is a fantastic print of a beautifully shot film, and in either 2.0 or 5.1 (2.0 only for the theatrical cut) the soundtrack sounds amazing. The haunting music, either the wistful pan pipes or the original non-diagetic score really adds to the tone, helping to create an eerie, atmospheric film. Apart from anything else, the silence that permeates the soundtrack adds so much to the film's feel that it gives weight and a sense of oppression to what we experience. Not being answered, after all, is worse than being given a shout back – that's the uncertaintly that drives this film.
Extra Features
Discs one and two are extras-free – there are subtitles and that's it. Disc three however, is where it's at, and that's where the bounty prevails. There'a a 113 minute feature, "A Dream Within A Dream", a making of flick with a whole bunch of cast and crew interviews; a 1975 doco called "A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900", which interviews Peter Weir, Joan Lindsay and a bunch of the key cast members; an interview with author Joan Lindsay from 1974; an audio interview with Karen Robson (who played Irma, the girl who was found); another featurette, "Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall: Then and Now"; a tour of the film's principle locations; the first screen adaptation of the story, "The Day of St Valentine", a 1969 short film given a commentary by its director; a selection of the scenes cut for the Director's cut; and a stills and posters gallery, including an excerpt from the novel read by Helen Morse. It's about as full an extras package as you could hope for.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This 3 disc edition of the film that kick-started Peter Weir's career is the business. You get the Director's cut on one disc, the original theatrical version on the second disc, and a third disc full of a whole swag of extras. Regardless, this is one of the most important films to have come out of this country, and deserves a place on your shelves. An elegant, beautifully shot film with a decidedly creepy atmosphere, Picnic At Hanging Rock is the kind of film that you need to immerse yourself in; it's definitely not the kind of thing you put on at the end of the night with a skinful of booze – for the full impact, you need to be totally compus mentus and paying a great deal of attention. If you're a fan of great camerawork, you'll love it – there's a reason why Peter Weir enjoys the reputation he does for direction.

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