Picnic at Hanging Rock: Umbrella Two-Disc Edition Review

"What we see and what we seem are but a dream – a dream within a dream."

Peter Weir’s film has already been reviewed twice on this site. I have reviewed the Region 0 Criterion edition here and Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release from Pathe here. This review is of the new two-disc Region 0 “collectors’ edition” from Umbrella Entertainment, released as part of their Oz Classics line. For a review of the film itself, I refer you to either of the other reviews. Here, I will be comparing Umbrella’s release with its two predecessors and discussing the extensive extras which are new to it.

All three releases are of the director’s cut that Weir prepared after the film’s release, which reduced the running time from 116 minutes to 107, the major deletion being a six-minute sequence showing a growing but tentative relationship between Michael (Dominic Guard) and Irma (Karen Robson), the only one of the missing girls to be found, which ends with her refusal to tell him what happened at Hanging Rock. As I said in my original review, the cuts “do tighten a rambling last half-hour, but also have the effect of sidelining Michael's character in the narrative to the point where Guard’s second billing is hardly justified.” As far as I know, the original version is not on DVD anywhere in the world, though it is available on VHS (which is why I’m keeping my copy, if only for reference’s sake) and is still shown on television. I’ll speak more about Weir’s director’s cut in a short while.

Umbrella’s release is in a ratio of 1.78:1 but is non-anamorphic, as is the Criterion in the narrower ratio of 1.66:1. The Pathe edition is also in 1.78:1 but is anamorphic. Weir may have personally supervised the Criterion transfer and prefers 1.66:1 as a ratio, but that may simply be another example preferring an image with more height (or less letterboxing) for home viewing. The film has always looked to me as if it was framed for 1.85:1. As to which of the three releases has the best picture, that’s not easy to say. The picture will always look soft as Russell Boyd shot much of it with light diffused by muslin. The Region 2 is theoretically superior by being anamorphic, but the Criterion has always been a first-rate example of non-anamorphic NTSC. There’s very little in it, but I’d give the Criterion a slight edge. If the Umbrella release were anamorphic, it would without a doubt be the definitive release. Screengrabs follow, in the following order: Criterion, Pathe, Umbrella. (Thanks to Mike Sutton for the loan of the Pathe DVD.)

The Criterion wins out for its soundtrack, which is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Normally I’d criticise remixes of mono soundtracks, particularly if the original isn’t present on this disc, but as this is director-approved I’ll go with it. As I said in my original review, this is better than most such remixes, being well-balanced with a better than usual dynamic range. Much of it is still centre-channel (though one scene has off-screen dialogue coming from the left speaker), with the surrounds used for Zamphir and Bruce Smeaton's music. The subwoofer is used to subtle effect in some scenes, notably the ominous bass note heard under the opening credits, and also the steady build-up of sound just before the disappearance. The Region 2 has a Dolby Surround track. The Umbrella release is in mono (over two channels), but a higher bitrate to the Pathe – 224 kbps as opposed to 192. It sounds fine to me, and as the film was originally mono anyway I can’t mark it down.

The Criterion has thirty-three chapter stops, the other two sixteen each. The Criterion is the only edition to have hard-of-hearing subtitles, which is a black mark against Pathe and Umbrella.

On to the extras. The Region 2 has none whatsoever, not even a trailer. On disc one of the Umbrella is just such a trailer, which is also the only extra on the Criterion disc. This is in 4:3 and runs 4:34 on the Umbrella DVD. It’s in pretty dire condition, washed out, with a blizzard of scratches at the beginning. In any case, it’s a very long trailer, indicating that the marketing folks didn’t think this film was an easy sell.

The only other extra on the Criterion is an essay by Vincent Canby. But the Umbrella release is just getting started. Its extras continue on to a second DVD-9 disc.

“A Dream Within a Dream: The Making of Picnic at Hanging Rock” is an outstanding documentary that is actually longer (113:16) than the film it accompanies. It tells its story in a series of interviews, beginning with producer Patricia Lovell’s finding Joan Lindsay’s novel. It discusses the setting up of the film, with some words about members of the cast and crew, the shooting, the film’s reception and the director’s cut. Interviewees include Peter Weir, co-producers Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy, actors Anne Louise Lambert, Helen Morse, John Jarratt and Christine Schuler, scriptwriter Cliff Green, DP Russell Boyd, composer Bruce Smeaton, artistic consultant José Perez, and in archive footage Joan Lindsay. Christine Schuler is visibly moved when she talks about her friend Jane Vallis, who played Marion and who died young, of breast cancer in 1992. The documentary scores by its inclusion of rare footage, such as clips from Weir’s early shorts (Michael, his contribution to the three-part film 3 to Go and Homesdale, which will be released as part of a Weir shorts compilation in 2005 by Umbrella), Boyd’s two earlier features (a hilarious clip from The Man from Hong Kong and an extract from the trailer for Between Wars - I hope that doesn’t mean that the latter film doesn’t survive), and the American dub of The Cars That Ate Paris. This isn’t an uncritical look back either: Lambert in particular is very critical of Weir’s decision to cut the film. Some of the deleted scenes are shown in this featurette. It’s a pity that the deleted scenes haven’t been included as an extra, as they will have been seen by anyone who has watched the film theatrically or on television. (The German Region 2 release from Kinowelt, which I haven’t seen, is apparently the only one which includes them, albeit dubbed into German.) The documentary is in 4:3 and has twenty chapter stops, with a selection index.

If that wasn’t enough, the DVD also includes “A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900” (25:55), a short documentary made at the time of the film’s making. Patricia Lovell presents it, and she interviews amongst others Peter Weir (who looks very young), Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard (who looks barely old enough to shave) and Rachel Roberts. Shot in 16mm, this documentary is in 4:3. The picture is quite soft and the film seems to have faded a little.

Two other interviews follow. First is an interview with Joan Lindsay (14:59), talking about her early life and writing career and how the novel came into being. There’s also an audio-only one with Karen Robson, who played Irma and who is now an American-based entertainment lawyer. This is quite long (14:48) and detailed, dealing with how she came to be in the film and her reactions to it. According to the packaging there’s an audio interview with Dominic Guard, but there’s no sign of it on the disc.

“Hanging Rock: Then and Now” (5:41) is a short documentary which deals with the two main locations (Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall, which stood in for Appleyard College), by means of film extracts and footage of the locations as they are now. This is silent except for Georghe Zamphir’s panpipes.

A set of trailers begins with the original theatrical, repeated from the first disc and in no better condition. Also included are a TV spot for a double feature with Michael Pate’s 1977 film The Mango Tree (0:55). Another double-feature trailer combines Picnic with The Last Wave (2:01). It’s in 4:3, with the footage from The Last Wave letterboxed into 1.78:1. A stills and poster gallery runs 7:27, self-navigating to the accompaniment of Helen Morse reading an extract from Joan Lindsay’s novel.

The last extra is footage from a 1969 amateur film, The Eve of Saint Valentine, made by Anthony S. Ingram, who was thirteen at the time. He had permission from Joan Lindsay to film her novel and he shot in black and white 16mm at weekend. There’s no soundtrack except a commentary by Ingram with subtitles replacing dialogue where appropriate. The film isn’t in wonderful condition, with scratches and splices galore, but as it uses the same locations as Weir’s film it’s striking how similar it looks: no doubt due to the quality of light at Hanging Rock. Unfortunately the film was never completed, as Lindsay’s selling of the rights to Patricia Lovell precluded any other version of her novel, even an amateur one.

And that’s it. Of the three editions of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Umbrella is by far the winner in terms of extras. It could have been the definitive edition of what is not only a major film of the 1970s Australian film revival but a great film in its own right. However it falls just short by not including the deleted scenes, by not being anamorphic and by not having subtitles. There isn’t a commentary, but the extras would make that superfluous. The Region 2 is a budget release and is worth buying if all you want is the film, but the Umbrella release isn’t much more expensive (about £12 at the present exchange rate with the Australian dollar). If it isn’t definitive, it’s not far off it.

9 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:25:21

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