Back when I first saw 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid ‘90s, we didn’t have the internet. And the Criterion laserdisc I owned (one of the very last Criterion laserdisc releases) was bare bones, so beyond the film itself, there was no information on it. If memory serves me correctly, for some time I believed it to be based on a true story, and the movie’s opening intro, coupled with its mission to not answer its central mystery, might lead anyone to believe that it is. It just seemed like a highly artistic interpretation of real events. And it still does today, though via this brand new Criterion edition, decked with numerous bells and whistles, it’s easier to discover the truth, which is that Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a fictitious novel by a lady named Joan Lindsay – a paperback copy of which is included in this set.
|Hanging Rock - from a distance|
The story at first revolves around a girl’s school in Victoria, Australia, in 1900, and the students’ St. Valentine’s Day outing to the imposing volcanic monument, Hanging Rock (which is a very real place). Upon arrival, quiet weirdness abounds, and after several lazy, dreamlike hours, three of the girls and one of the teachers have gone missing. The second half of the film studies the effects the disappearances have on not only the school, but also the nearby town and its variety of residents. It is, after all, a small town at the turn of the century where people do not just disappear.
|Mrs. Appleyard passive-aggressively terrorizes Sara|
The movie is crammed with ideas, thoughts, and feelings, expressed through an intricate, restrained drawing of its numerous characters, with the repression of the time period leading to people unable to properly communicate their fears, hopes, and desires. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the severe, imposing school headmistress, takes out her frustrations on the awkward student, Sara (Margaret Nelson), while the much younger and more vibrant Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) is wracked with guilt over her inaction the day of the picnic. The befuddled Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), who leads the investigation and search party to find the missing, continually finds himself at a loss for words (his position, coupled with his resemblance to Graham Chapman, leads to a frequent expectation for him to finally break out with an “All right! All right! All right!”).
|Michael and Albert spy the schoolgirls headed for the rock|
The privileged young English boy Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard, who, for my Whovian brethren, played Olvir in “Terminus”) is haunted by the disappearances more than anyone else, and he makes it his mission to find out what happened, regardless of the potential cost to his own well being. By contrast, his blue collar Aussie acquaintance, Albert (a young John Jarratt, the bad guy of Wolf Creek), is haunted by his own past, and has closer ties to the school than he could ever know. Not every struggle in Hanging Rock is caused by the mystery, yet they often appear to be reflected in it.
|Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda|
What is perhaps most absorbing about Hanging Rock is not the characters we spend time with throughout the entire film, but rather the missing girls, led by the luminescent Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), and their intellectual math instructor, Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) – all of whom cast a potent spell in the 40 or so minutes of screentime they have. Lambert is a cinematic angel, and her visage haunts the movie long after she’s gone, just as it does the viewer after the credits roll. But these days Gray’s McCraw is my favorite. The steely, calculating teacher, enlightened with a knowledge of the world that Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson would appreciate, appears to be living out of time and place. McCraw hypnotizes, not least because the movie dishes even less on her disappearance than the others. The film strongly suggests that the rock awakens something primal and perhaps even sexual in these women – something they were unable to tap into or unleash in the society they had grown up a part of, but that the rock opened, and they found inviting.
|Mlle. de Poitiers (l) and Miss McCraw (r)|
Yet those assertions are more my interpretation than anything else. Picnic at Hanging Rock should mean something different for each viewer. It’s that kind of movie, and the open-ended narrative is the lack of punctuation on an unfinished sentence. It’s an exercise in mood and sound (the music ranges from classical works to Zamfir’s pan flute to evocative original compositions), and most certainly stunning cinematography by Russell Boyd. Though it was not director Peter Weir’s debut film, it was the one that introduced his considerable talents to the world. Weir has since gone on to helm some truly incredible films over the course of his long career, though there’s not a one of them I wouldn’t put up against Hanging Rock just to demonstrate how strong the movie really is.
Lastly, keep an eye out for a very young Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook), who receives theatrical billing much higher on the marquee than her character - an amorous maid working at the school – demands. Off the cuff: Anyone else often find themselves playing games of “Is that Jacki Weaver or Sally Struthers?”
Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Picnic at Hanging Rock arrives in a “dual format” combo single Blu-ray/ two DVD set, which is a recent Criterion experiment that apparently, as of last Friday’s announcement, will be halted come September. Bit of a shame, really. I can see how DVD consumers would have issues with the price increase, but Blu-ray enthusiasts that “didn’t like making room for DVDs they didn’t want” just smacks of the oft-ridiculed first world problems. As a Blu-ray freak, I am always happy to get a free DVD with my purchase, Criterion or not, so I didn’t even really have time to warm up to this new presentation before it was dispensed with. In any case, the movie looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the 5.1 surround track more than gets the job done. Weir uses both pictures and sound to weave his tapestry, and both are surely tighter here than on any previous Region A/1 release.
At the top of this piece I mentioned the Criterion laserdisc. It was followed by a bare bones DVD edition in 1999, and now, 15 years later, we have this hulking combo set that includes the paperback novel. Seriously, when the package arrived, I thought there were two movies enclosed. After all this time, Criterion rectifies those previous meager presentations with a host of lovingly prepared goodies.
Extras kick off with a 10-minute introduction by film scholar David Thomson, which is followed by an enlightening 25-minute interview with Weir - a welcome inclusion, as he meditates and dishes on all things Hanging. Likewise, “Everything Begins and Ends” is a 30-minute doc featuring interviews with producers Hal and Jim McElroy, exec producer Patricia Lovell, DP Russell Boyd, and cast members Anne-Louise Lambert and Helen Morse. At first glance it would be easy to take this disc to task for not featuring a commentary track, but between the Weir interview and the doc, there’s really no need for one as plenty of ground is covered, and Hanging Rock is not the kind of movie that viewers should be walked through scene by scene anyway.
Additionally, there’s a theatrical trailer, and 26-minute period doc from ’75 entitled “A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900,” much of which is shot at Hanging Rock, including further interviews with Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard, Weir, and others. Lastly, on the video side of things, there’s a 50-minute black and white short film called Homesdale. It was this movie that led exec producer Lovell to hire Weir to helm Hanging Rock, though why that is remains yet another mystery, as the tone, feel and subject matter of the short isn’t much like the feature film. Even Weir seems puzzled by the fact in the interview piece. (Frankly, Homesdale is such an oddball piece, its weirdness makes Hanging Rock seem pretty straightforward by comparison – perhaps therein lies the answer.)
All screengrabs in this piece were taken from the DVD.