Picnic at Hanging Rock Review

The following film review is taken from Gary Couzen's excellent review of Second Sight's R2UK Deluxe Edition DVD release back in 2008.

"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.

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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.

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The Director's Cut

In 1998 Picnic at Hanging Rock was re-released theatrically in a Director's Cut that had removed footage rather than adding it. It is this Director's Cut version that is included on this release, which unfortunately does not include the original theatrical cut in either HD or SD form. I've not actually seen the original cut of the film myself, so I'll once again quote one of Gary's reviews, this time his review of the R1 Criterion DVD:

"Criterion's DVD contains Weir's preferred version, which is an unusual director's cut in being shorter than the original. At 85 minutes, just after the scene where Michael (Dominic Guard) believes he's seen Miranda in the woods, Weir has removed a six-minute sequence showing a tentative closeness between Michael and Irma, whom he had rescued from the rock, and her refusing to tell him what had happened at the picnic. Weir cuts directly to a shot of a "Missing Presumed Dead" poster, then deletes a lengthy shot inside a church at the memorial service, cutting to the remaining girls leaving. These 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."

I can only add that in the extras on this disc Peter Weir explains he felt the scenes between Michael and Irma which Gary described above detracted somewhat from the mystery in the final act, and that he was never fully pleased with their inclusion.

Presentation

I'm not sure what the LCD brigade who demand scrubbed up ultra-sharp presentations from their BD discs will think of this release as Picnic at Hanging Rock was never going to look like that, given Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd went to pains to achieve a very diffuse, soft focus look. Thankfully Second Sight have not attempted to remaster out any of that inherent diffuseness and have delivered a 1080p AVC transfer that is suitably sun-kissed and as delicate as the girls from Appleyard College themselves. Colours are extremely rich throughout and brightness and contrast levels seem perfectly weighted - which means in some shots black levels may seem a little hazy due to the amount of exposure no doubt, there is also some brightness flickering and/or a fading of the print on the right hand side in some shots,. Shadow detail is also quite strong. In particular the scenes during the picnic at the start of the film look absolutely gorgeous, with lush golden hues contrasting evocatively against the grey outcrops of Hanging Rock.

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There are no surprises with regard to grain and detail, opticals look quite soft and grainy and certain scenes also exhibit heavy grain depending on shooting conditions, otherwise the transfer has a moderate layer of grain and is reasonably detailed but obviously fine detail falls shy of what HD fans are used to - which again I have to stress is most likely inherent to the print. DVNR doesn't seem to be an issue judging by the amount of flecks and pops that appear throughout the film, it's nothing too heavy but they can sort of appear in waves at times.

Only 2 niggles let the transfer down a touch, one is that there is some slight Edge Enhancement in some shots, perhaps most noticeably in the up-shots of the rocks around Hanging Rock when Miranda and co. go off exploring, but also the encoding seems to struggle in some scenes. It has a pleasantly high average bitrate of 32.20Mbps but you can spot some minor compression noise in grainier shots like the opening titles (which is understandable I guess), but also there's noise and banding in some night time scenes.

There are three audio options offering the film's English presentation in lossless LPCM 2.0, DTS-HD MA 5.1, and lossy DD5.1. Obviously the LPCM stereo track should be the way to go given the age of the piece, and it offers a fairly impressive presentation that belies its age with little damage or tearing and hiss being kept to a rather unobtrusive level. In general the audio is nicely separated and suitably refined; bass is lacking a little but I doubt anyone with have a problem with the quality of this presentation. If you absolutely must have a surround-sound presentation then popping the LPCM track into pro-logic mode on your amp will offer pretty much the exact same presentation as the DTS-HD 5.1 track, so the latter is rather redundant. Finally the DD5.1 track is noticeably quieter and seems to have slightly flatter bass levels and a slightly less dynamic sound than its lossless counterpart, but perhaps cranking up the volume a few notches may address those issues a little.

Optional English audio descriptive subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall

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Extras

There's a really fine selection of extras on this release although if you already own the Second Sight DVD then I'm afraid there's nothing new on this disc - but then you could argue that their Deluxe Edition gave you pretty much all the extra material you could want from the film and as such there was simply no need for them to provide anything more. Here goes:

A Dream Within A Dream (113min:16sec, 576i, English DD2.0)
An excellent, feature length documentary that covers pretty much all you need to know about Picnic at Hanging Rock as a film entity. It's primarily a talking-heads retrospective with producers Patricia Lovell and Jim & Hal McElroy starting off by discussing how the project came about and how Peter Weir, Martin Sharp, and Cliff Green became the major creative forces behind the project as the Director, Artistic Advisor, and Screenwriter respectively. The story of the production itself is mostly told by a number of the cast and crew - such as Weir, Sharp, and Green themselves; actresses Anne-Louise Lambert (Miranda), Christine Schuler (Edith), Helen Morse (Mademoiselle de Portiers), John Jarratt (Albert), composer Bruce Smeaton, and cinematographer Russell Boyd. Interspersing the feature is footage from the production and interviews taken with the likes of Weir, Joan Lindsay, and Rachel Roberts at the time of filming - not to mention clips from Peter Weir and Russell Boyd's earlier work leading up to Picnic at Hanging Rock. Also importantly is footage from the original ending conceived by Weir and Green that would have provided perhaps a less ambiguous conclusion of sorts, as well as a discussion with Peter Weir about the Director's Cut were he explains his reasons for paring down the film.

A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900 (25m:54s, 576i, English DD2.0)
This is an old Making Of produced back when the film was being made presented by Executive Producer Patricia Lovell and covering topics that are discussed in A Dream Within A Dream. Naturally at a fraction of the length it's not nearly as comprehensive but it's certainly worthwhile to see a young Peter Weir's take on the film and interview footage with Dominic Guard and the late Rachel Roberts also provides another source of input not found in the longer retrospective.

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Joan Lindsay Interview (14m:59s, 576i, English DD2.0)
Produced by AAV Australia for the Australian Council in 1975, Joan Lindsay could never be accused of being a tight-lipped interviewee and barely pauses for breath as she discusses her lifetime passion for art and writing and how she slowly but surely developed a career as a writer after entering writing competitions in her youth. On the topic of Picnic at Hanging Rock she reveals how she wrote it and addresses the issue of whether it is fact or fiction, and this footage will be familiar if you're work your way through all the extras on this disc as it is featured in the two Making Of features.

Audio Interview with Karen Robson (14m:52s, 576i, English DD2.0)
Another free-flowing interview, this time with Karen Robson who played the role of Irma in the film and who is now a film finance lawyer and producer. She also had some big scenes cut for the Director's Cut and received an apologetic letter from Peter Weir at the time explaining why he excised them, but Karen doesn't seem to have any trace of an actor's ego when talking about the shorter cut of the film. The rest and majority of this interview covers Karen's memories of filming Picnic at Hanging Rock and her subsequent career behind the screen in Hollywood.

Hanging Rock & Martindale Hall: Then and Now (05m:41s, 576i, English DD2.0)
A montage of clips from the film shown alongside video footage of the same specific locations as they looked circa 2008 when the featurette was originally produced (I doubt they've changed much in the two years since). It's good to see that most of the locations used in and around Hanging Rock are relatively unchanged, with just the one spot now showing signs of modernisation to make things easier for visitors looking to traverse the rock. Martindale Hall is also still pleasingly familiar over 30yrs later.

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The Day of Saint Valentine (03m:43s, 576i, English DD2.0)
Anthony S. Ingram and a number of friends took a crack at filming Joan Lindsay's novel in 1968 at the precocious age of 13 after Lindsay gave her blessing, but while he got to work with an old 16mm camera at Hanging Rock he never finished the film because Lindsay soon sold the rights to Patricia Lovell, which meant even amateur productions were then off limits. We're treated to footage of what Ingram managed to shoot here without any recorded audio, so burnt in subtitles conveys the dialogue. Ingram himself provides a running commentary on the footage.

Scenes Deleted for the Director's Cut (08m:26s, 576i, English DD2.0)
As titled this feature contains the scenes excised by Peter Weir in 1998 when he put together his Director's Cut, if like me you are not familiar with the Theatrical Cut then this is a pretty crucial extra feature.

Stills and Photo Gallery (07m:28s, 576i, English DD2.0)
A reasonably long collection of stills and posters that comes with an excerpt from the Picnic at Hanging Rock audiobook, read by Mademoiselle de Portiers herself: Helen Morse.

Overall

A seminal film for Australian cinema and a great mystery without a solution, Picnic at Hanging Rock is given good treatment by Second Sight on Blu-ray, with a strong presentation and excellent selection of extras. It would have been nice had Second Sight included the original Theatrical Cut in some form on a 2nd disc (DVD would've been most likely), but I can't say I felt short-changed in any way by the package they've put together.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 15:10:27

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