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PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Anne-Louise Lambert
Director:  Peter Weir
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  June 17, 2014

"You must learn to love someone else, apart from me, Sara...I won't be here much longer."

Film ****

It was one of the most exciting days I've experienced as a film critic when I learned that Criterion would be bringing Picnic at Hanging Rock to Blu-ray.  I would wager most movie fans have never heard of it, even though they will know its director, Peter Weir, from other hit films like Witness and The Truman Show.  So why such excitement over this modest little gem from 1975?  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 after I saw the movie for the first time, it stayed on my mind for days and days afterwards.  It's that good. It really does, for me, represent everything I love and cherish about the art of filmmaking.

Video ****

Criterion's original release of this movie on DVD was before the studio began using anamorphic widescreen transfers; even then, it was beautiful, but with this Blu-ray, you get a double revelation:  anamorphic AND high definition.  And there may not be a classic film better suited for the technology than this one.  I mentioned the cinematography over and over, and I have to say...this was an experience.  I've watched the movie dozens of times, but this time made me feel like I had never seen it before.  The colors...rich, vibrant, and natural, and the details...solid, crisp, and flawless.  This is one of the best 70s transfers EVER MADE.

Audio ****

The soundtrack is DTS HD 5.1, and it, too, is a revelation.  I never noticed before how the subtle but almost constant work of the subwoofer during the Hanging Rock scenes really adds to the surreal mystery of the mountain...just a bit of a hum underneath everything else keeps you a bit unnerved.  The sounds of nature are full and ambient, and the spoken words are clean and clear.  The use of surrounds are tasteful.  Dynamic range is minimal; there are no explosions or gunshots, but a few emotional moments do capture your attention.  Peter Weir approved both audio and video transfers for this release.

Features ****

This set is packed, starting with full movie and features on either one Blu-ray or two DVDs.  It begins with a new introduction by scholar David Thomson; a bit dry, but informative.  There is also a lengthy new documentary on the making of the movie, featuring some classic interviews with cast and crew.  In addition, there is an extended interview with Weir. 

There is also a vintage 1975 on-set documentary called "A Recollection...Hanging Rock 1900", featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes looks, including an appearance by author Joan Lindsay herself.  Lastly, there is a 1971 film by Weir called Homesdale, which is said to have inspired the producers to approach him specifically for Hanging Rock, and the original trailer, which is a good one.

Oh, and there is a terrific booklet featuring essays and pictures, AND, best of all, a copy of the original novel.  I've always wanted to read it, but it's been out of print for a long time...leave it to Criterion to make several of my wishes come true in a single release.

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 Blu-ray, particularly with the stunning high quality video and audio presentations, and a package of extras that will keep me happily busy for days.

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