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Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Release Date: 
Second Sight
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Directed by: 
Peter Weir
Rachel Roberts
Anne Lambert
Helen Morse
Karen Robson
Dominic Guard
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Shot when its director Peter Weir was just twenty-nine years of age and being only his second full-length feature film, the fabulous “Picnic at Hanging Rock” continues to intrigue and tantalise audiences to this day with its mysterious charm and unique timeless atmosphere. Based on a 1967 mystery novel by Joan Lindsay about the disappearance of a party of schoolgirls at the turn of the twentieth century while they were ostensibly on a Valentine’s day excursion to an ancient geological formation known as Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia,  the film adaptation, like its written source, very cannily accumulates a great deal of its immediate power through the suggestion that it is based on true events. A text prologue at the start of the film suggests this, and a voice-over at the end, relating the fate of the film’s fierce head-teacher Mrs. Appleyard, backs up this unspoken intimation. Not only was the novel’s text structured and presented as though the tale were true -- making use of and describing with  great verisimilitude real-life locations -- but author Joan Lindsay continued to hint and evade questioning on the subject throughout her life, thus only stoking further speculation and belief in the truth of the events at the centre of the strange tale.

In reality, the story was entirely fictitious -- but the film doesn't lose any of its suggestiveness because of that fact: this tale about a tantalising mystery with seemingly no solution at its centre becomes more a poetic commentary on a particular group of characters and their varying reactions to an apparently incomprehensible event that, nevertheless, changes all their lives, as well as their attempts to cope with the subsequent lack of resolution in its aftermath; it’s more about the interior lives of the people left behind than about what might have actually happened up on that rock. Themes are adumbrated and alluded to which deal  with the abuses and repressions and cultural impositions underpinning life at the girls’ college, but always in an elliptical, vague, moody dreamlike fever-state that’s neither overtly surreal nor remotely realistic. The film’s unique mysterious quality is rooted in landscape and history; in intangible, timeless cycles of nature and Victorian society’s regimented attempts to impose its own order on them. Lindsay did in fact write a final revelatory chapter at the time of the novel’s original publication, in which the whole mystery was explained. Wisely, her editor convinced her to drop it from the final text. Once the mystery is unravelled, all the poetry drains away from the tale. Its power derives from its elusive preternatural quality, in which precise details are accumulated which seem to demand an ordering narrative structure that provides a conclusive ‘solution’; yet the full picture is always just out of sight and the pieces refuse to fit together, forcing one to resort to allegory, myth and mysticism.

The film introduces us to the inhabitants of the Appleyard College for Girls: a private institution run with iron Victorian will by its matriarchal founder and headmistress -- played with similar imposing authority by Rachel Roberts. Everything about Mrs Appleyard and her baroquely decorated Italianate college, plopped so incongruously in the middle of  the Australian outback, screams order and fastidious decorum. She even delivers precise instructions about when it would be most appropriate for the girls to remove their gloves as they leave for their picnic at the Hanging Rock on a hot and sultry day under the mid-February sun. The girls themselves lead rich imaginary fantasy lives symbolised by their self-delivered (or otherwise delivered to each other) Valentine’s cards. The golden girl of the college is Miranda (Anne Lambert), a beautiful blonde Botticelli angel, according to French Mistress Mademoiselle de Portiers (Helen Morse), and the object of an intense schoolgirl crush for waifish orphan and charity placement Sara (Margaret Nelson), who is the only one of Miranda’s close circle of friends not to be allowed to attend the picnic as a punishment for failing to learn by rote a prescribed piece of English poetry -- and for writing her own instead.

The girls are accompanied to the Rock (‘waiting a million years … just for us!’) by the aforementioned French mistress and their taciturn Mathematics teacher (with what Mrs Appleyard tellingly describes as her ‘masculine intellect’), Miss McCraw (Vivean Grey). In the hazy languor of the afternoon on the lower slopes of the rock, the girls and their chaperones eat an iced-cake, press flowers and doze in the rocky shade of a ravine. Both available time pieces mysteriously stop at twelve noon precisely, for no apparent reason. Miranda and her friends Irma (Karen Robson), the bookish Marion (Jane Vallis) and the frumpy Edith (Christine Schuler) decide to explore the Rock and are observed from some distance away as they head for a higher plateau by Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), the young son of an English colonel living in the area, and his friend and valet Albert (the young John Jarrett -- later familiar to horror fans for his big role in “Wolf Creek”). The girls explore the rock formation with its weird jutting ridges and grotesque faces (either somehow carved by ancient hands or weathered into ominous simulacra by prehistoric forces of nature); they observe its brooding dark recesses and ominous monolithic outcroppings; but only Edith returns in a state of some hysteria, babbling about seeing the other three girls disappearing into a stone recess up a slope, of seeing a strange red cloud and, even more oddly, catching sight of the Mathematics teacher Miss MacCraw -- running up the slope as Edith herself was coming down -- without her skirt! The following police investigation turns up nothing, and Mrs Appleyard’s authority begins to unravel as the gossip and  speculation induces parents to start removing their daughters from the prestigious school. The fragile Sara turns Miranda into almost a religious icon of veneration in her unhappiness and Michael, unrealistically  romantically besotted by his fleeting glimpse of her, becomes obsessed with heroically rescuing the girls. He attempts to retrace their steps but is eventually discovered by Albert in a delirious daze, clutching at a piece of lace skirt belonging to one of the missing girls. Albert follows a trail left by Michael and discovers Irma -- alive and well but minus her corset and with absolutely no memory of anything that has happened during the week she has been missing …

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” forms part of a small subset of mystery films that deal in elliptical, unresolved narrative, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” or David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” or even Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Birds”. The makers of “Lost” were good at this sort of thing, until they went overtly science fiction and ended-up resorting to mystical tunnels spewing heavenly golden light. The critic Roger Ebert places it alongside E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (to which I would add Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus”), all of which deal with the subject of colonial values and European civilisation being incommensurable with the ancient rhythms of nature long established by the country's indigenous populations, leading to disruption in the form of sexual hysteria when the invasive culture tries to import its ‘civilising’ norms and customs.

In Weir’s film, it is almost as though what the girls come to represent is so potent and disruptive to the restrained and (literally) corseted values of a transplanted English society -- with its orderly procession of formal garden parties in the middle of the outback and such like --  that they simply cannot be acknowledged by the ruling inhabitants and so cease to exist as anything more than rumour or legend; which nevertheless still casts a pall over the unravelling minds and lives of all concerned. When Irma turns up again, she is a further spur to this artificial society’s total disintegration: a living breathing reminder of the irrational nature of what has transpired, who cannot even offer any placating explanation to allow the mystery to be processed, rationalised and, thus, neutralised. The most disturbing scene of the film comes when Irma, now physically recovered from her ordeal, visits the other girls in gym class (which is being conducted in a Christian chapel, evocatively enough) dressed in lush scarlet Victorian garb (a reminder of the skirtless Miss MacCraw?) which emphasises her approaching womanhood. The girls grimly turn on her and attack her, demanding that she tell them exactly what happened to Miranda and precisely what took place on the Rock.

The film’s gentle power and woozy atmosphere derive almost entirely from the amazingly vivid visual and audio presentation of the material. The combined talents of production designer David Copping, artistic adviser Martin Sharp and cinematographer Russell Boyd create a stunning, rich, yet immensely detailed heat-haze of evocative imagery, a rosy representation of idyllic ‘biscuit tin’ Victoriana set against a brooding, yet brightly-lit Australian landscape of natural imagery presented in all its glory (scurrying ants, basking lizards and the all-enveloping  Bush foliage; not to mention the incredible imposing geological formation of Hanging Rock itself). Martindale Hall, which was used as the site of Appleyard college -- both in its outlandish placement and its general appearance, doesn't seem to have required any dressing at all, and gives the film a real sense of timeless authenticity which a conventional film set may have found difficult to emulate. The audioscape of the movie with its dark, ominous rumblings and other-worldly sound effects creates a suggestion of supernatural intervention which the screenplay otherwise only hints at near the end with Albert’s dream; and the beautifully chosen score, which combines stately classical pieces by Bach and Beethoven with that iconic and gorgeously suggestive (and deliberately anachronistic) Romanian pan pipes piece by Gheorghe Zamfir, and a swirling piano and melatrone score by Bruce Smeaton, is the cherry on the top of a perfectly judged, delicately constructed edifice of subtle mystery and suggestive period detail. “Picnic At Hanging Rock” is one of my top twenty favourite movies of all time.

This marvelous UK Blu-ray edition from Second Sight presents the official director’s cut, which, as is well known, runs a good eight minutes shorter(!) than the original theatrical version. Weir has made the film more cryptic and suggestive rather than less so and therefore, to my mind, made it even better -- which is not usually the case when director’s feel the need to add all the extraneous material they rightly dumped in the first place. I agree with Weir’s decision, here, to pare down the film further and increase the mystery and ambiguity surrounding it; but the deleted scenes (which mostly revolve around the budding relationship between the rescued Irma and Michael in the latter half of the film) are included on the Blu-ray disc as extras for those who require them.

The transfer looks great. The film is deliberately shot to look hazy and dreamlike, making extensive use of diffuse lighting, filters and even fine muslin and Vaseline on the lens, so don't expect super sharp imagery because that is not how the film is meant to look. Nevertheless, this still appears beautiful and detailed, the scenes inside the ornately decorated Appleyard College in particular look absolutely stunning now.

The extras included on the three-disc DVD edition some years back are all here once more, led by one of the most extensive and informative ‘making of’ documentaries of all time, “A Dream Within A Dream” - the title coming from a line from the Edger Allan Poe poem that is quoted at the very start of the film: ‘All that we see and all that we seem, is but a dream within a dream.’ Running even longer than the film itself at nearly two hours, this tracks the entire story of Hanging Rock from the writing of the novel itself to producer and former Australian TV star Patricia Lovell’s optioning of the film rights and decision to employ Peter Weir as the director; then their are extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of the cast and all the major players in the crew, who relate their extensive memories of the shooting of the film. It’s a wonderful documentary, and is not afraid to address conflicting opinions and controversies, particularly around those members of the cast who disagreed with Peter Weir’s decision to re-cut the film and remove certain scenes.

“A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900” is a twenty-five minute documentary made in 1975 primarily as a piece of publicity -- it seems -- for the then forthcoming movie, as it is presented by producer Patricia Lovell. It stokes up the erroneous claims that the story is based on fact and features interviews with author Joan Lindsay and footage of her visiting the set. An interesting curiously piece from the period of the film’s general cinema release in Australia.

“Joan Lindsay - an Interview”: This is a very rambly monologue from an aged Joan Lindsay shot for Australian TV, in which she recounts incidents from her life and once more evades fessing up entirely to the story’s fictional nature. It runs for around 15 minutes.

“Audio Interview with Karen Roberts”: since she is one of the few cast members not to be interviewed on the main documentary, this is a nice fourteen-minute  addition by the actress who played the important role of Irma in the film. Roberts is no longer and actor but is still involved in the film industry in the US and is evidently immensely proud of her involvement with this cult classic. She is being interviewed by phone here.

“Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall: Then and Now”: a shot-by-shot comparison between scenes from the film and recent video footage taken around Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall which reveals that neither appears to have changed that much since the film was shot in 1974.

“The Day of Saint Valentine”: a three minute curiosity this -- the original black and white silent movie-style footage shot for thirteen year-old amateur film-maker Tony Imgram’s  original  version of Joan Lindsay’s novel. It was abandoned after Lindsay withdrew permission, having by then sold the rights to the story to the producers of the feature film. 

The deleted scenes from the original theatrical version are included along with a gallery of stills and poster art which is accompanied by an audio excerpt from the original novel being read aloud.

“Picnic At Hanging Rock” is a masterpiece and receives a superlative presentation here on a reasonably priced Blu-ray edition from Second Sight. Very highly and warmly recommended.

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