[16 July 2014]
Both the 1975 Peter Weir movie Picnic at Hanging Rock and the 1967 novel upon which it is based are definitely about something, but that thing remains perpetually out of focus and open to interpretation. Weir would go on to make other notable, successful films, like Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show, but Picnic at Hanging Rock would remain his most elusive effort, as well as the one that established his reputation and helped put Australian filmmaking on the international map. The film has now been given the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment in an astonishingly comprehensive set of this film, including a Blu-ray/DVD pressing accompanied by a plethora of extras and a copy of Joan Lindsay’s atmospheric, elliptical novel. It’s perhaps the most lavish treatment Criterion has invested in any single film, which is saying something.
The story is simple enough, as far as it goes. At the turn of the twentieth century in rural Australia, a group of young women from a local college goes on a picnic outing to a local landmark, the brooding and impressively severe Hanging Rock. Despite repeated warnings not to wander too far, a quartet of girls does just that, led by the dreamy beauty Miranda. Of the four girls, only one returns to join the picnickers, hysterically howling as she does so. When search parties are dispatched, one of the teachers from the college disappears as well.
And that’s about it. There’s some more searching, and various subplots involving this townsperson or that student, with each plotline branching off of the central mystery. Without wishing to spoil any of the action, it’s fair to say that few conventions of Hollywood storytelling are present here, with many questions going unanswered. This is certainly storytelling at its boldest, in terms of usurping viewer expectations; whether those same viewers will come away satisfied is anyone’s guess.
Given the dearth of traditional plot elements, viewers are left digging for thematic and visual meaning. Hanging Rock supplies both, particularly of the thematic variety. The screenplay emphasizes the romantic/sexual elements nascent in any group of late-teen girls: the action takes place on Valentine’s Day; the girls are viewed, at times leeringly, by male onlookers; much is made of the removal of articles of clothing, such as gloves and stockings. Before long, even the stuffy headmistress’s warnings about “poisonous snakes” begin to take on a sexual connotation. (The headmistress is named Mrs Appleyard. Apple tree? Tree of knowledge? Adam and Eve? Sexual awakening/shame?.)
For such an elliptical story to work, the performances need to be note-perfect, and happily, most of them are. Particularly notable is Anne Lambert as Miranda, a strikingly lovely young woman whose languid energy is perfectly suited to the film’s tone of quiet menace. Also strong is Rachel Roberts as Mrs Appleyard and Helen Morse as the somewhat flighty Mlle de Poitiers, the school’s French teacher. Men are relatively few in the film, but John Jarrett does good work as a local lad whose presence introduces the almost inevitable themes of class into this stuffy Victorian-era tale.
Despite these strengths, though, there are a few areas in which the film seems surprisingly lacking. The cinematography, though competent, is hardly as disorienting or unnerving as it ought to be, with certain shots used over and over to suggest—well, to suggest something—when it might well have been more effective to use a wider variety of angles. Hanging Rock itself, a geological formation in Australia consisting of craggy rock faces and deep crevices, is visually both alluring and creepy, and the viewer senses a lost opportunity here to let the landscape participate more fully in what is, in some ways, a horror movie. That said though, the rock formations are quite evocative, often suggesting faces weathered directly into the stone.
As for the aforementioned extra features, they are exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. In addition to the expected flawless high-definition transfer with 5.1 surround sound, there is a 2003 interview with the director, a new 30-minute featurette on the making of the film, another documentary from 1975, made on set and hosted by executive producer Patricia Lovell, a new “video introduction” to the film from film historian David Thomson, and the 50-minute short film Homesdale, an early effort of Weir’s (1971) which is typically offbeat. A 30-page booklet includes a pair of enlightening essays on the film itself and on Weir’s place among the “Australian new wave” of cinema. Besides all this, the film itself is available in this set in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. And if all that isn’t enough, Criterion has included a copy of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel as well. Taken together, it’s quite an impressive package.
Despite its oddness or because of it, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a unique film that all movie buffs should sit through at least once. It’s likely to be a polarizing experience, with plot-reliant viewers coming away less than fully satisfied, but lovers of mystery, ambiguity and the thrill of open endings likely to be far happier. However one responds to it, the film remains one of a kind; like its protagonist Miranda, it remains a mystery after its brief existence, lovely to look at, difficult to fully comprehend.