Picnic at Hanging Rock Review

On St Valentine’s Day 1900, a party from the exclusive girls’ boarding school Appleyard College, set out to Hanging Rock, a strange volcanic formation. Three of the girls – Miranda, Marion and Irma – and Miss McCraw, the maths mistress, disappear without trace…

Based on a novel by Joan Lindsay (and the story is fiction, despite what some may believe), Peter Weir’s second feature was a major breakthrough both for himself and the recently-revived Australian film industry. 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. Atmosphere and mood are all-important: Weir, with the help of Russell Boyd’s brilliant camerawork, a carefully controlled sountrack 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: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream – a dream within a dream.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock ran 116 minutes on its original release. Criterion’s DVD contains Weir’s preferred version, which is an unusual director’s cuts 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. Considering how completist Criterion usually are about their DVD releases, it would have been good to have these scenes on the disc as an extra, particularly as they are part of the version of this film that most people are familiar with. The only extra, apart from Vincent Canby’s liner notes, is a lengthy (4:49) trailer, which shows that the marketing men had a problem selling this one. The trailer is full-frame, rather washed out and contrasty. There are thirty-three chapter stops, which is plenty, and subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.

I have no complaints whatsoever about the quality of the transfer on this disc. It’s just about as good as non-anamorphic NTSC gets: sharp and detailed, with strong colours and rich blacks, and artefact-free. The British video release and Film Four’s digital broadcast version – both of which I compared the DVD to – look horribly muddy-coloured in comparison. To be very nitpicky, the picture has a couple of dust-specks in one scene, but you’d miss them if you blinked. The film was composed to be shown in 1.85:1, but this transfer is at 1.66:1 and hence non-anamorphic. However this was Weir’s choice as he supervised and approved the transfer. Presumably he’s a director who prefers less rather than more letterboxing for home viewing. He also supervised the remix of the soundtrack from the original mono to Dolby Digital 5.1. 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.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of Criterion’s more extras-light discs. A commentary would have been nice, and I’ve already mentioned the deleted scenes. However, for picture and sound quality alone this has to be the definitive version of a major film.


Updated: Jul 20, 2000

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