Picnic at Hanging Rock
Since the brief era of the laser disk, The Criterion Collection has been building a well-deserved reputation for presenting the most precise mastering to disk and presentation for home enjoyment with the catalog that encompassed some of the masterpieces of the cinematic arts. They naturally moved on to DVD and eventually Blu-ray as the distribution formats much to the delight of avid cinephiles everywhere, including myself. When I receive a new announcement from Criterion it is inevitably greeted with a personal sense of excitement. The Criterion Collection was once dominated by esoteric foreign films of incredible creative significance. Recently they have brought in their scope to movies that have either made some significant contribution to filmmaking as a form of artistic expression or cult classics that it had personal impact on many film aficionados. In the early days of DVD, 1998, Criterion released one of the most significant examples of Australian filmmaking. The 1975 tour de force, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, the film responsible for putting Australian auteurs on the same respective ranks formally dominated by the United States and European directors. This is always been a personal favorite of mine so understandably when I received an opportunity to review the new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, I left that the opportunity.
The director, Peter Weir, had already established himself as a filmmaker of merit prior to taking on this project. Over his career is this visionary would receive six nominations for Best Director by the Academy Awards. Among his subsequent hits are ‘Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World’, ‘the Truman Show’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’. Incredible range of his talents could not be contained by a single genre; Peter Weir was one of the most eclectic filmmakers of his generation. The film here was a masterful mélange crafted from period dramatic romance and true crime story interwoven with such care that the resulting tapestry is emotionally forceful, psychologically intense and visually innovative. The screenplay by Cliff Green, relying on the best-selling novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay with most fans and members of the critical community agreeing the script was true to the essence and literary excellence of the novel. Fundamentally, the story concerned the mysterious disappearance of an Australian schoolteacher in the six students in her charge. Their intention was to spend an idyllic autumn day picnicking, but was never heard from again.
It was the dawn of the 18th century, 1900 on St. Valentine’s Day. A group of young women were all attending a private girl’s school, located near the town of Woodend, Victoria, Australia. Keep in mind that in the southern hemisphere the seasons all reversed so this picnic was inspired by the beautiful autumnal weather. The group consisted of; Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), Rosamund (Ingrid Mason), unassuming Sara (Margaret Nelson), and the reclusive Edith (Christine Schuler). The girls are on campus passing the time reading poetry and exchanging with each other. The sentiments found on the Valentine’s Day cards. The young women are preparing for a picnic at a local site called Hanging Rock. Several members of the faculty will be chaperoning the outing; McCraw (Vivean Gray), the mathematics instructor and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse), who possesses a youthful beauty not commonly associated with the faculty of a stern boarding school such as this. Finally the last member of the staff to accompany the girls was Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child), who appears to be quite nervous. She has been ordered by the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), that she is to inform Sarah that she does not have permission to participate in the outing. The one man in attendance is Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan), the buggy driver.
Was just past noon, when they finally arrived at their destination. Settle in for the midday meal. Mr. Hussey notices that is watch has stopped exactly at noon. Ms. McCraw deepened the mystery by noting of watch also stopped at that precise instant. Marion, Miranda and Irma approach the mademoiselle to ask permission to explore the immediate vicinity with the intention on taking some measurements. They are given the permission and told that Edith is to go along with them. An Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), is nearby enjoying his own midday meal when he notices the group of young women passing by. Accompanying Mr. Fitzhughbert is his uncle, Colonel Fitzhubert (Peter Collingwood), aunt Mrs. Fitzhubert (Olga Dickie), and there valet Albert (John Jarratt). The group from the school stops at the top of the rock reclining in the warm sun, apparently confused by it. Miss McCraw, still at the base of the rock, looks up to see Miranda, Marion and Irma and seemingly in a dreamlike state start to move towards a recess in the rock. Edith, who is closest to the events begin to scream as she runs down to Miss McCraw.
The group of women returns to the campus of the school in hysterics, where the mademoiselle attempts to explain to the headmistress what has happened. Miss McCraw remains behind in case the missing girls reappeared. Meanwhile, the authorities convene a search party led by Constable Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts) and Constable Jones (Gary McDonald). They begin by questioning the witnesses with Edith disclosing that Miss McCraw was seen climbing the rock without her skirt. Michael provides the limited account that he can, having seen the girls, but not having information as to where they have gone off to. Investigation continues with some clues like a swatch of lace being found and eventually Irma being found unconscious and dehydrated. The mystery as to exactly what happened at the rock deepens considerably.
Like many of the films that we see The Criterion Collection consideration this one is a timeless classic and enduring masterpiece of cinema. Typical of the Criterion releases their mandate to remain true to the artistic vision of the filmmaker is carefully retained. The version of the film contains here is the hundred and seven minute directors cut that although shorter than the original addition represents the story as envisioned by Mr. Weir. Many movies would’ve concentrated on the disappearance of the girls in the possibility of aborigines being responsible. The way this story is allowed to unfold, the central themes revolve around the profound emotional impact the disappearance had any intense psychological effect experienced by those in the school and the community. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is nothing short of inspired. The beauty of the landscape and the stark titular rock with the human beauty of the young women leaves a lasting visual impression. Now with a high definition afforded by Blu-ray the incredible beauty of this film is more vibrant than ever. This serves as the ideal setting for drama that extends deep into the mind of the viewer inexorably pulling you in. There were several threads that intertwined around the main story that provides such intricate nuances that is rarely seen, especially at this heightened level of craftsmanship. Undertones of a forbidden romance between two of the students is in contrast to the fear that will soon pervade all the characters.
Even by the exalted standards of The Criterion Collection this three disc set is magnificent. The first disc contains the Blu-ray version with an additional two discs containing the DVD edition. The commentaries and extras represent a scholarly exploration of this film. You’ll also find in the box set the original novel, a delightful and welcomed extra that is practically never considered. If you are serious collector the new undoubtedly already know about the Criterion Collection and undoubtedly have a section of your shelves devoted to them. If you are just beginning to gather together great films for your own edification and enjoyment, this one is certainly mandatory. So many true crime stories degrade to the level of the pulp paperback that watching an example of this genre that is also the piece of cinematic artistry. It will give you a different perspective going forward.