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Picnic at Hanging Rock – 4K

by Glenn Erickson Jul 06, 2024

Peter Weir’s tale of a mysterious disappearance in 1900 is even more disturbing than his The Last Wave:  the ‘New Australian’ movement must have needed an ethereal art picture to balance more exploitative fare. ‘Unexplainable’ doesn’t get more weird than this: four school girls and a teacher vanish without a trace near the base of a landmark rock outcropping. People can’t remember how it ends, but they never forget the glowing cinematography. Criterion’s disc set contains another Weir show, a strange item closer to a conventional horror film.


Picnic at Hanging Rock
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 29
1975 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 107 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date April 9, 2024 / 49.95
Starring: Rachael Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Anne Lambert, Dominic Guard.
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Art Director: David Copping
Film Editor: Max Lemon
Costume Design: Judith Dorsman
Original Music: Jim McElroy
Additional original music: Bruce Smeaton
Musician, pan flute: Gheorghe Zamfir
Screenplay by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay
Produced by Hal McElroy, Jim McElroy
Directed by
Peter Weir

Must every movie mystery have a resolution?

Set at a prim and proper private school for girls, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an art film about a mysterious incident from the turn of the century. Director Peter Weir creates a tangible aura of mystery from the unexplained episode, using it to explore the weaknesses of Australian society at the end of the Victorian Era. The subdued and prettified suspense item is beautiful to look at, and devoid of exploitative content. The first shot accompanies an image of Hanging Rock with an ominous hum on the soundtrack. In post-  The Exorcist terms, this triggers associations with The Devil at work. But almost all of the shocks occur off-camera. Director Peter Weir takes pains to pack the dialogue with references to sexual repression and supernatural intervention. The overall tone is one of quiet hysteria.

Criterion’s disc was a very early DVD offering, number 29 to be exact. Now remastered and restored in 4K, it will please viewers that were equally fascinated and dumbfounded by the film back when was new. Will close examination yield new clues to the mystery?  After pondering the many extras, much about Weir’s movie becomes clearer. Only the main question remains unanswered.

 

Australia, 1900. A wagonload of school girls embarks on a Valentine’s Day outing to Hanging Rock, a picnic destination of middling interest. Given permission by their French teacher Mademoiselle de Portiers (Helen Morse) to snoop around the base of the rock, four of the young ladies wander upward into the higher elevations of the outcropping. They utterly disappear, as does a teacher who attempts to retrieve them. Multiple searches turn up nothing. All activity at the school comes to a halt. Parents withdraw some of the students, and one of the teachers quits. The headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachael Roberts) sees the end of a business she’s worked all her life to build. Over a week later, two local boys return to the rock to cover search ground already gone over a dozen times…

A major curiosity of a movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the earlier ‘New Australian’ pictures of the seventies given wide distribution in the American market. The U.S. had to wait four years for this one, after director Peter Weir made a hit with  The Last Wave. That quasi-mystical courtroom drama suggested that indigenous supernatural powers held sway over the vast continent of Australia. Weir’s previous film had been the apocalyptic satire  The Cars that Ate Paris. Remaining fairly obscure, it is sometimes cited as an inspiration for the  Mad Max movies.

The handsomely photographed Hanging Rock appeared at a time when abstract narrative puzzles like Nicolas Roeg’s  The Man Who Fell to Earth were well-received. Weir’s film attracted plenty of critical attention and discussion. Fed by rumors that it was based on a true incident, the movie generated endless talk about possible ‘solutions’ for its ambiguous mystery.

 

Discussing Picnic at Hanging Rock requires the employment of occasional SPOILERS. Beware.

Peter Weir’s film plays the horror game of withholding selective clues: the camera eye shows many things unreported by witnesses, but not what everyone wants to know. The hard facts point to a case of ‘more information needed.’  Several young females disappear on a picnic. One is found much later, in a condition out of keeping with the length of time she was missing. A clear sequence of events is never established: the investigation is clouded by the emotions of the searchers, the inability of the recovered girl to remember anything, and ‘institutional resistance.’  The spinsterish teacher Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) reportedly went up the hill to retrieve the girls. The only fact about her disappearance that can be established, is that she was last seen wearing only her pantaloon underwear.

The poor constable on the case has little of substance to work with. The account of the girls’ actions while out on their own is based on the unreliable testimony of a surviving fourth girl, Edith (Christine Schuler). What Weir shows us of the soon-to-vanish young women only clouds the issue. They remove their shoes and stockings, hike barefoot further into the rocks, and then utterly disappear without any rational explanation. The rest is rumor and illusion, coupled with the kind of ‘clues’ that might show up in a supernatural or science fiction story.

 

As it is Valentine’s Day the girls are quoting love poetry. Some of them are blissed-out by poetic thoughts. They thus seem all the more suited to be virgin sacrifices in a fairy tale or horror story. The beautiful, fair-haired Miranda (Anne Lambert) has a strong emotional connection with her roommate, the orphan Sara (Margaret Nelson). Miranda makes the strange statement to Sara that she’ll not be around long, which in the context of the film foretells her doom.

is the sensation aesthetic, or erotic?

In their beautiful costumes the girls already resemble artistic abstractions of feminine youth from an innocent age past. As she watches Miranda wander away, Instructor Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse) compares her to a ‘Botticelli angel.’  Miranda and her friends do seem like objects of abstract beauty, removed from time and reality. Were they ‘artistically idealized’ to death?  Or are they such potent symbols of sensual promise that the Hanging Rock absorbed them, like a voracious spirit of nature?

Miss McCraw is shown examining a book of Geometry, but we never see her leave the napping picnic party. We only have Edith’s word that she later went up the hill in her knickers. The wagon driver confirms that more than one pocket watch stopped at exactly 12 noon, the kind of information sidetrack that makes difficult the collection of more relevant facts. Did time stand still?  That sort of clue often indicates that a natural cataclysm is about to take place — or that outer space Aliens have imposed a magnetic field over the area. The visuals keep suggesting that something supernatural has taken place. More than one person says that the girls could have fallen down a hole, but even that explanation isn’t particularly believable.

 

What exactly the two boys were doing is not immediately known. The wealthy Michael (Dominick Guard) is smitten by the sight of the girls crossing a stream, and follows them. Servant Albert Crundall (John Jarratt) is a strong lad with a more vulgar appraisal of the women. We don’t know what he gets up to after Michael leaves. Later on, both young men seem honestly innocent, and their desperate rescue effort seems sincere. Michael is found shivering on the hill. His delirium doesn’t explain the tatter of a girl’s dress clutched in his hand, or why her body appears in plain sight a while later, in a place almost certainly searched before.

The repressed attitude toward sex and sex crimes cuts off various avenues of investigation. People are obviously thinking about sordid scenarios, but propriety and timidity inhibit frank discussion. How could these idealized female creatures be in any way complicit in evil doings?  If the mystical angle weren’t advanced so strongly, it makes sense that a kidnapper or a rapist-murderer should have been the focus of attention. Or perhaps the girls wanted to run away and there was a conspiracy of silence. Anything is possible — perhaps Miss McCraw was secretly involved in something wicked with the girls.

If we take the girls’ behavior at face value, none of these wild ideas seems likely. As improbable it seems that Miss McCraw sold the girls into White Slavery, or that Michael and Albert captured them as sex slaves for a week, such theories are more credible than the supernatural mystery imposed by Peter Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green.

 

The main problem with supernatural explanations.

It’s as if the cosmos had nullified all rationality that day … everybody more or less gives up. Weir sticks to his theme of facts being essentially ‘unknowable’; the literal whereabouts of the girls stops being the main concern. The mystery is abandoned as such an open question, that we should have been looking for the missing schoogirls during the ‘returned lost people’ scene at the end of  Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Weir instead spends his time documenting the sensuality of these virginal creatures. Protected and watched at all times, they live a weird cloistered life. They write valentines, quote poetry, have strong passions and yearn for sexuality itself. In their era, sensuality and the supernatural must have been equally mysterious — both were whispered secrets denied by decent society.

Not too many movie mysteries leave the audience high and dry, forced to scrutinize every on-screen moment for a clue. Alfred Hitchcock’s  The Birds dropped all kinds of clues that might ‘explain’ the unexplainable, but dismissed the supernatural as just another human delusion. Peter Weir instead weaves a delicate web of spiritual forces at work, seemingly insisting that Hanging Rock had somehow ‘claimed’ the girls, like a prehistoric God or a nature deity. Weird sounds abound; Michael hears echoed dialogue a week later. Demon-like lizards appear at crucial moments on Hanging Rock, especially during a nap time, when heat waves distort the image and ominous sounds are heard. Weir constructs long superimpositions of Miranda that make her seem to dissolve into the landscape.    Much later, Michael sees a (daydream?) vision of Miranda in a garden. Weir’s visuals equate her with a swan, as if she’s now taken on a new role in nature.

What would Werner say?

Remembering the documentary  Burden of Dreams, we can envision the outspoken filmmaker Werner Herzog throwing a tantrum at Peter Weir’s idyllic interpretation of Nature. Herzog would insist on reminding us that the swan eats disgusting bugs, or defecates all over the place, contributing to the oppressive rot and decay of natural reality.

Some critics regard the show as a (very muted) horror film. Phil Hardy’s  Horror Encylopedia is a bit dismissive, calling the source novel a cliché “about a favorite psychological myth: the emergence of sexuality. In order to sustain this myth, it is necessary to equate childhood with ‘innocence’ and adulthood with ‘knowledge.'”

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is at its best when showing the locals’ inability to come to grips with the disappearance: the panic and the frustration, the invention of convenient untruths. The school is ruined. More people ‘disappear’ as teachers resign and pupils are sent away, some for reasons that are not publicly acknowledged. Young Sara had been denied the privilege of going on the picnic because her tuition hadn’t been paid; the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard now quietly sends her away, as efficiently as the Hanging Rock had erased Sara’s beloved Miranda. When Sara’s absence is noted Appleyard invents a story to explain why. The camera lingers on the remaining students’ haunted reactions.

As a poetic conceit and an exposé of futility in a society under pressure, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a smashing success. After this intimate picture of youthful female preoccupations, Peter Weir would move on to examine male youth’s fascination with adventure and glory in his impressive  Gallipolli.

Although Rachel Roberts is the name star of the show, Dominic Guard was well remembered from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between. Critics anxious to connect Hanging Rock with traditional film horror should note the matron who praises a servant for suppressing a clue about a missing corset. The actress is Olga Dickie, the thoughtless maid from the Hammer classic  Horror of Dracula.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Picnic at Hanging Rock is an upgraded revisit of an excellent Blu-ray + DVD combo from 2014. It is a new 4K restoration announced as supervised and approved by both director Peter Weir and his director of photography Russell Boyd. The feature film appears on both the UHD and Blu-ray disc, with the extra features on the Blu-ray only. It is also available in stand-alone Blu-ray and DVD editions.

The 4K image beats the U.S. release print we saw back in the day, which was probably several generations away from the original negative. This incredibly clean and finessed copy tends toward warm, light images in the sunny outback, but the colors stay distinct and the textures vibrant. When the images are gauzy and heat-distorted, it’s intentional.

The soundtrack highlights the period songs and the delicate music score that features the pan flute of Zamfir. The creepy hums and rumbles signify horrific forces at work in the wild. The dubbing of some actors is at times a little rough. We’re told that Peter Weir re-edited the film sometime after its initial release, dropping eight full minutes from its running time.

 

The extras from the previous Blu-ray have been carried over. A lengthy promo from 1975 discusses the mystery as if it were historically true, and includes input from Rachael Roberts, director Weir and author Joan Lindsay. It’s accompanied by a making-of interview docu with the film’s producers and some of the actors. In a long solo interview from 2003, Peter Weir goes into great detail about his filmic approach. He recounts his attempt to pin down author Lindsay as to the factuality of her story’s events.

An intro by author David Thompson brings up some good points, such as why Hanging Rock would have been considered a suitable place for a picnic at all, considering the dangers described by Mrs. Appleyard. That observation makes us wonder why the parents of the three missing girls don’t immediately rush to the school to threaten everyone involved with lawsuits. It’s to Weir’s credit that these considerations don’t derail his eerie fantasy.

In addition to an original trailer, we’re given an okay transfer of Weir’s early movie Homesdale, a bizarre fantasy about a holiday camp overrun by malicious maniacs. Guests are teased and the odd and weak ones tormented. A Psycho-like shower scene comes out of nowhere, as do later moments of absurd violence. Fifty minutes long and filmed in B&W, it seems designed for TV use. It may be director Weir’s one stab at a commercial horror show.

The one extra not repeated from the older disc release is a paperback copy of Joan Lindsay’s original novel, which we’re told was out-of print in the United States.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Picnic at Hanging Rock
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent if remote
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Interview with Peter Weir
Making-of piece featuring interviews with executive producer Patricia Lovell, producers Hal & Jim McElroy, and members of the cast
Introduction by film scholar David Thomson
On-set documentary A Recollection . . . Hanging Rock 1900 featuring Weir, actor Rachel Roberts and author Joan Lindsay (1975)
Peter Weir’s 1971 black comedy Homesdale (1971)
Trailer
28-page illustrated insert booklet containing an essay by author Megan Abbott and a book excerpt from film scholar Marek Haltof.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD Disc + one Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 4, 2024
(7159rock)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Dennis Fischer

Weir’s made-for-television film The Plumber plays more like a conventional horror film as a bathroom repair turns into an unexpected nightmare.

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Chas Speed

I liked the original uncut version of the film, so I’ll pass.

Tony

I’ve visited Hanging Rock. During the drive in, you can barely see it, until suddenly it’s looming right over head, and the atmosphere is uncanny. It’s very easy to walk around it and feel like you’re back in the movie, slipping around corners and spaces that you really shouldn’t.

When Korean director Kim Je Woon was in Melbourne, someone asked him at a talk what he was going to do before he left, and he said he was going to take the trip out to country Victoria to visit Hanging Rock as he was such a big fan of the movie.

Last edited 2 days ago by Tony
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