Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'

With a sudden boost of government assistance by way of Prime Minister John Gorton, Australian cinema really came into its own in the seventies. The boom gave us some extraordinary films, such as Nic Roeg’s dizzying Walkabout and Ted Kotcheff’s brutal, horrifying Wake in Fright. But the most enduring masterpiece of that era is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Faithfully adapted from Joan Lindsay’s lyrical novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a dreamy and rather creepy allegory of Victorian sexual repression.

On Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of young women from an all-girl’s conservatory go for a holiday picnic near a mysterious rock formation in the Australian wilds. Three of the girls and their teacher mysteriously disappear during the excursion. In the wake of this bizarre tragedy, a young man (Dominic Guard) becomes obsessed with finding out what happened, a rebellious young girl (Margaret Nelson) obsesses over the loss of the ideal Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert), and the school slowly goes to pot.

This may sound like a decent amount of dramatic substance, but Weir develops the film so slowly and reveals so little that some viewers will no doubt feel cheated by his refusal to let us know precisely what happened. I love this movie for that very reason; the spell is never broken, the mystery is never solved, and the viewer is allowed to fill in the gaps as he or she sees fit. I’d always rather be haunted than routinely satisfied, and few films are as haunting as Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its golden cinematography and otherworldly depiction of nature in contrast to the conservatism of the bordering school environment and its seething headmistress (Rachel Roberts) who so desperately wants to keep her school as tightly wound as her pompadour.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was an early release in the Criterion Collection, which means it’s been well due for an upgrade for a while, particularly since that DVD was pretty bare boned. Criterion has more than made up for that with a new Blu-ray/DVD combo that delivers high quality in both the video/audio department and the extras. There’s a ten-minute introduction by film-course text-book mainstay David Thomson, which largely focuses on the film’s place in Australian cinema, a 2003 video interview with Weir that functions as a good making-of account (he talks about getting approval from Joan Lindsay, the tantalizing unsolved mystery, casting, locations, music, and the film’s mesmerizing aesthetic), and a new documentary called Everything Begins and Ends that fills in the gaps and features new interviews with the production team, actress Helen Morse, and the still radiant Anne Louise Lambert. Less insightful but neat for retro reasons is a vintage on-set doc called A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900, most notable for the first hand perspectives of Joan Lindsay and a baby-faced Weir. Weir is also represented by his short film Homesdale, a weird mystery much more playful and much less polished than the feature. Lindsay is represented by the complete (and long out-of-print in the U.S.) Picnic at Hanging Rock novel, which may be the neatest extra of all.

The one glaring omission is the clutch of scenes deleted from the original theatrical version of the film. I have never seen those scenes as part of the film, but I have seen them on their own, and while I don’t think they add anything of great value to the story, it still would have been nice to have them as extras. That one omission aside, Criterion’s new edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock is as beautiful a package as the film and as satisfying as that film refuses to be.

Get the Criterion edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock on here:

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