Picnic at Hanging Rock: Deluxe Edition Review
Much of what follows has appeared before on this site in a different form. The review section is derived from my 2000 review of the Criterion edition, and the disc specs and comparison from my 2005 review of the Australian two-disc edition from Umbrella Entertainment, both revised and updated.
"What we see and what we seem are but a dream – a dream within a dream."
Peter Weir's second feature was a major breakthrough both for himself and the recently-revived Australian film industry. Picnic at Hanging Rock began as a novel by Joan Lindsay (and the story is fiction, despite what some may believe). The book was published in 1967. Patricia Lovell read it four years later. Lovell was at the time working in television: she had been the host children's television programme called Mr Squiggle for fifteen years. That year, she saw Peter Weir's fifty-minuter Homesdale (available in Australia on Umbrella's Weir Short Film Collection DVD) and was impressed by it, and thought that Weir might be a good director to handle the material. A meeting the following year with producer Philip Adams (whose first feature The Adventures of Barry McKenzie) who encouraged her to pursue getting Picnic at Hanging Rock made. So she did. In 1973 she contacted Peter Weir (who was then raising money for his own first feature, The Cars That Ate Paris) who was enthusiastic, and she took an option on the novel. David Williamson was originally due to write the screenplay, but he was unable to due to other commitments, and recommended Cliff Green to take his place.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film about a mystery, but although we are given many clues and hints, the mystery is never solved. The film is more concerned about the effect of that mystery on those left behind. This kind of narrative strategy is not original with this film: the classic example would be Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura from fifteen years earlier. But although that film is an accredited masterpiece of world cinema, Picnic has a wider popular following, and not just for the fact that it is in colour and English. Atmosphere and mood are all-important, to the extent that they supplant a narrative which does not have any expected closure: Weir, with the help of Russell Boyd's brilliant camerawork, a carefully controlled soundtrack and Gheorghe Zamphir's pan-pipe music, creates a mood that's both seductive and unsettling. However, at the two-thirds mark, when Irma (Karen Robson) is found, the film has nowhere really to go. Almost no ending would be satisfactory, but we get one anyway. This isn't really an actors' film, but Rachel Roberts is excellent as the strict school principal, Mrs Appleyard, who gradually falls apart as the mystery deepens. Anne Lambert makes the most of her brief screen time as the ethereal Miranda, who says the film's key line, quoted at the head of this review.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is for many people a film that defines Australian cinema. From a British perspective at least, it's up there with Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee Of course, Australian cinema is much wider and deeper than that, as I hope I've demonstrated in my reviews of it on this site. An unfortunate side-effect is that it created an image of Australia as a home of genteel period pieces – much preferable to many people as a representation of the country than the “ocker” comedies like Barry McKenzie which preceded it - and later filmmakers have often tended to react against that stereotype. But Picnic does deserve its place in history: without it, it would be doubtful that the 70s film revival (or New Wave if you prefer) would have gone as far as it did.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has already been reviewed twice on this site. I have reviewed the Region 0 Criterion edition here and the Australian Region 0 two-disc edition from Umbrella Entertainment here. (The Umbrella edition was non-anamorphic when I reviewed it but has since been reissued with an anamorphic transfer.) Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release from Pathé here. Now we have the Deluxe Edition from Second Sight, which comprises three discs encoded for Region 2 only, presented in a digipak inside a cardboard slipcase.
All previous DVD releases of Picnic are of Weir's director's cut. This reduced the running time from 116 minutes to 107. It's unusual for a director's cut to be shorter than the original version, though not unique. (Another example is The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.) The major deletions are of 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.” The original version continues to be shown on television and was released on VHS, but has so far not been available on DVD. Even the deleted scenes have only been included, dubbed, on a German release from Kinowelt. Second Sight have the director's cut is on Disc One and the original version is on Disc Two (or Bonus Disc 1 as the label has it), with the third disc comprising the extras.
The director's cut runs 102:39 and is anamorphic. The transfer has thin black bars at the top and bottom of the frame, so is in a ratio of approximately 1.80:1, from a theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 (Previous DVD releases have been in 1.78:1, anamorphic or not.) Criterion's release was non-anamorphic in the narrower ratio of 1.66:1. eir 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. (Cf. Criterion's director-approved 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer of Dead Ringers, a film that was certainly shown in 1.85:1 in cinemas.) Picnic 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, but the new edition as well as being anamorphic has brighter, more vibrant colours.The following is the comparison from my Umbrella review, updated to include the present edition. In order: Criterion, Pathé (disc loaned to me by Mike Sutton), Umbrella, Second Sight.
The Criterion and Second Sight editions have a soundtrack which is in Dolby Digital 5.1. This remix was director-approved, but Second Sight score for including the original mono track as well. The 5.1 track is superior to 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. Second Sight also include hard-of-hearing subtitles, which no other edition I have seen apart from the Criterion has done.
The original version runs 110:59 including the following 20-second announcement at the beginning:
This version is indeed anamorphically enhanced, in a ratio of 1.66:1. No-one will pretend it's as good quality as the transfer on the director's cut: there's evidence of colour bleeding, telecine wobble and other artefacts. Here is the same shot as above in this version, as a screengrab:
The soundtrack is the original mono, and subtitles for the hard of hearing are again included.
On to Bonus Disc 2, and the rest of the extras. This pretty much replicates those on the Umbrella release, however with one significant addition and one omission. The omissions are the theatrical trailer, which was the only extra on the Criterion (apart from a text essay by Vincent Canby) and a couple of TV spots. The addition is a reel of the scenes deleted from the original version to make the director's cut. These are anamorphic 1.66:1 and run 8:26. As well as the six-minute Michael and Irma subplot referred to above, there is an early scene where Miss Poitiers greets the girls in the morning and some of them present her with a rose for St Valentine's Day; shots inside the church at the memorial service, and a couple of shots of Miss Appleyard at her dressing table towards the end of the film.
“A Dream Within a Dream: The Making of Picnic at Hanging Rock” is an outstanding documentary that is actually longer (113:17) 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 is distinguished 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.), 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 anodyne look back either: Lambert in particular is very critical of Weir’s decision to shorten the film. Some of the deleted scenes are shown in this featurette. The documentary is in 4:3 and just the one chapter stop (the same documentary on Umbrella's edition has twenty and a selection index).
“A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900” (25:55) is 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 very 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 (14:52) and detailed, dealing with how she came to be in the film and her reactions to it.
“Hanging Rock: Then and Now” (5:42) 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 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.
Nitpicks are minor ones: the absence of the trailer and the lack of chaptering of the documentary. Also, there are no subtitles available on the third disc. There is no commentary, but then there never has been one, as Weir rarely makes them. But as far as standard definition DVD goes, this very reasonably priced three-disc edition from Second Sight is likely to be the definitive one for a long time to come, especially as Blu-ray releases of classic Australian cinema seem some way off to say the least.