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PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Anne-Louise Lambert
Director:  Peter Weir
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  October 20, 1998

Film ****

1998 was a good year for acclaimed director Peter Weir, as his film The Truman Show has already received a number of awards, as well as the accolades of peers, critics, and audiences alike. But if you turn back the clock to 1975, you can get a look at the first film made by this talented director--a quiet, unassuming, yet totally hypnotic and surreal masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock. This movie, in a nutshell, is simply one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

It's hard to know where to begin with this movie, but I must start with the cinematography--it is simply unequalled. Never have I seen more beautifully constructed shots, and I mean, shot after shot after shot. Nothing is wasted in this movie, and both indoor and outdoor filming are perfection. The Australian outdoor scenes are particularly breathtaking, richly textured, and filled with vibrant colors and carefully composed screen images. The indoor shots are equally brilliant, with wonderful interior set designs, again making full use of range of colors and spatial composition. Frankly, if I were teaching a class in cinematography, this film would be Exhibit A, and the textbook for the course.

But this is more than a pretty picture to look at--it is also a haunting and absorbing period piece. The story is simple enough: the students of a girls' school go on a Saturday picnic to an ancient volcanic mountain named Hanging Rock. Four girls go up the mountain to explore. One comes back screaming and hysterical. The other three have disappeared--simply vanished without a trace. Neither manhunt nor bloodhound can find any trace of the girls, or the teacher who we later learn went up the mountain on her own, and was seen by the screaming girl in nothing but her underwear.

I can't emphasize enough that this picture is not a mystery movie...there are no clues, and no suspects, and frankly...no explanation. The girls have simply disappeared.

Eventually, one is discovered. She is unconscious and barefoot, but despite the harsh mountain terrain, her feet are unmarked. When she comes to, she can remember nothing.

Soon, the surreal eeriness turns to real tragedy. The head of the school, Mrs. Appleyard (Roberts) soon has to face the fact that the ugly and unexplained disappearance is costing her the school, as the publicity and the fear it creates causes more and more parents to withdraw their daughters. There is a sadness in the air at the school, as no one can explain the disappearance of their school mates. There is also sadness in the young man Michaels (Guard), who may have been the last person outside of the group to have seen them alive.

Fans of both the original novel and the film have made discussions of the events for years...what can be interpreted by all of this?  Was it an abduction?  Did the girls fall into a deep crevice, swallowed up by the earth?  Was it murder?  Was it something supernatural?  Adding fuel to the flames of controversy are the assessments of some Australian natives that the story was a true one, though author Joan Lindsay adamantly claimed it was pure fiction.  And as stated, there are no real explanations...merely interpretations.  Some have seen a common theme in Australian filmmaking that suggests the "civilized" intrusion of British society into their naturalistic world could never make for a peaceful fit.  Those girls, with their pristine Sunday dresses, repressed emotions and delicate manners, did not belong on that rock.  And the rock somehow corrected that.

If all this seems a bit hard to swallow, it's the fault of my clumsiness in attempting to describe and explain a perfect motion picture that almost defies description and explanation. All I can throw in as a critic is that I saw the movie for the first time two days before this writing, and I have not been able to get it out of my mind for a moment. It's that good. It really does, for me, represent everything I love and cherish about the art of filmmaking.

Video ****

This restored widescreen version, personally approved by Peter Weir, is one of the very best looking discs I've seen. I mean, every bit of the gorgeous cinematography shines through, in every shot. The colors are rich, vibrant, and no evidence of compression anywhere. There's even a perfectly placed layer switch.

Audio ***

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, but of course, nothing in the movie will rattle your speakers, though there is a nice musical score. It's obvious the good folks at Criterion knew this was an important, if overlooked, masterpiece, and gave it all the attention it deserved.


Features *

Only a trailer...though it's a good one.

Summary:

Picnic at Hanging Rock is very simply one of the greatest films I've ever seen, and no matter how many times I view it, it never ceases to amaze and haunt me for long afterwards.  I'm thankful to Criterion for bringing this important, if overlooked classic, to DVD, particularly with the stunning high quality widescreen transfer they've offered.