This sensual and striking chronicle of a disappearance and its aftermath put director Peter Weir on the map and helped usher in a new era of Australian cinema. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' concerns a small group of students from an all-female college and a chaperone, who vanish while on a St. Valentine’s Day outing. Less a mystery than a journey into the mystic, as well as an inquiry into issues of class and sexual repression in Australian society, Weir’s gorgeous, disquieting film is a work of poetic horror whose secrets haunt viewers to this day.
I've expressed my opinion of Criterion selections before, but my review of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' will require me to express it again. The way I see it, like them or not, all Criterion titles were selected to be part of The Collection because they possess a merit or achievement of note. That doesn't mean that one has to love every title that they release. There are some Criterion discs that I've reviewed and disliked, but couldn't deny the qualities and elements that made them worthy of joining the collection. Unfortunately, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is one of those titles. I don't particularly care for the film, but boy does it have some great qualities about it.
'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is known as one of the early greats that landed Australia on the filmmaking map. From now-known Aussie director Peter Weir, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is a 1975 film based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsey. Set on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1900, the story follows a group of girls and a few teachers from a proper all-girls college in the state of Victoria, Australia. On this day, the majority of the girls and their teachers go on a field trip, of sorts, to a remote volcanic rock formation. Four girls leave on an exploratory walk through the towering and cavernous rocks, but only one returns. A teacher heads out to find them, but also goes missing. The first third of the film sets up these events and the following two-thirds show the repercussions of the mysterious disappearance on the other schoolgirls, the staff, and the community.
The first chunk of the film works wondrously. A title card opens the film, detailing nearly everything that I just explained: four females disappeared without a trace. Because you know this mystery is coming, there's a highly uncomfortable, uneasy and unsettling tone that exists up to the disappearance. What we see before that – happy teenage girls visiting, getting ready for the day, excited for their Valentine's Day adventure – isn't at all creepy, but knowing that four of them are goners (and not knowing which four), creates an awesome tension.
From the opening credits all the way through the events at Hanging Rock, their dangerous picnic destination, the film carries a masterfully created dreamlike feel. From the way that the characters speak, to their movements, the camera movements, the editing, the music, and the use of mildly slow motion, all of this footage is mesmerizing. If you've seen 'Hanging Rock,' then you're undoubtedly aware of the film's moral relevance and symbolism. One of the strongest themes is the loss of purity and innocence. The girls, dressed in pure white, are viewed as clean and naïve. One of them is even deemed a literal angel. Yet through the events on Hanging Rock, as their proverbial innocence is about to be taken from them, a strong sense of sexual frustration comes over the film – and it's done in a completely indirect manner. I deem it extremely sensual without being sexual in the slightest. This is brilliantly achieved through Weir's masterful direction.
While everything leading up to the disappearances at Hanging Rock is brilliant, almost everything that follows is dry, unfocused, and lacking. Part of that lies within the mystery and the lack of information provided to us. In case you haven't seen the film, I'm going to provide you with a spoiler alert that may or may not be deemed a spoiler because of how openly this movie's plot is explained these. How would you feel if you watched a film that revolved solely around a mystery that was never solved? Actually, not only is it not solved, but not a single theory is even thrown out there. Did an animal get the girls? Did they fall down a mine? Were they kidnapped? Did a demon get them? Were they abducted by aliens? (Don't laugh at the latter speculations because there's more than enough evidence supporting those two arguments.) Who knows. But the emphasis is never really placed on the reason for their disappearance, just on the impact that it had on the others. End spoiler. Everything that happens after Hanging Rock is pretty lifeless. The focus of the narrative bounces around. Strange things happens and are never questioned. Motivations for all of the characters, save one, are non-existent.
So, why is 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' amongst the Criterion Collection? Because it's the picture that landed Peter Weir on the map and, despite its imperfections, it's a sign of things to come from him. It's not often that a director's first major picture is his best, but every great director has to start somewhere. With a brilliant first third, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' shows the start of Weir's great career.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has given 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' an awesome director-approved dual-format Blu-ray release. The cardboard slipcover packaging is the height of a standard keepcase, but much wider. That's because the release doesn't come in a standard clear Criterion keepcase. Instead, there's a large slipcover that the cardboard three-disc keepcase slides into. The reason for its unusual width is the inclusion of the novel by Joan Lindsay. The cardboard Blu-ray case and book horizontally slide into the slipcover side-by-side. The Blu-ray is a Region A BD-50. Included are two DVDs, one of the feature film and another with all of the special features. On top of the novel, a booklet is included in the Blu-ray case with two essays – one on the film itself and another on Australian New Wave director Peter Weir. Nothing plays on the disc prior to the main menu.
'Picnic at Hanging Rock' has been cleaned up very well and given an impressive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The video isn't flawless – what 39-year-old movie's Blu-ray is? – but it's quite good.
During many of the movie's shots that feature static cameras (no movement), you can see the shakiness in the print. This is especially noticeable in the movie's intro or any time that two or more camera shots are crossfaded over one another. On the bright side, it isn't consistent and it isn't always shaky enough to catch your attention and pull you out of the movie. In the ninth minute of the movie, there's a majorly shaky movement that occurs just before a jump cut. As if an earthquake shook the camera, you'll notice it.
The next thing I want to mention is not a flaw in the transfer, but a directorial decision explained in the special features - the occasional lack of detail. Like I mentioned in my review, many moments carry a dream-like feel. To heighten that feeling, the cinematographer placed nets between the camera and the action (he even used his wife's pantyhose at times). His idea worked well, because I immediately picked up on the desired dreamlike feel after the opening credits. But don't assume that all scenes have been wiped of detail. The nets weren't used all the time. That statement isn't confirmed in the special features, but there are some genuinely sharp shots in the film.
'Picnic at Hanging Rock' has been almost entirely cleaned up of scratches and debris. I never saw a running line and truthfully only noticed one scratch in the print (which actually happens in the same minute as the shaky print). Aside from one transition that reveals warped colors, colors and contrast are consistent. No edge-enhancing tools nor DNR seem to have been used. There's a slight dusting of celluloid grain, but nothing unusual.
While the video transfer was fantastic, the audio is definitely lacking. This lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix wouldn't sound any different if it was a 2.0 mix.
Ninety-five percent of the sound in 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is solely located in the front of the theater. I had to check the audio input to make sure that 5.1 audio was coming through because I believed that the Blu-ray spec's had misprint it as 5.1 when it was really 2.0. Once I verified the 5.1 audio, I even cranked the master volume up extremely high just to see if the surround levels were low. As the score kicked in, this hunch appeared to be the case – but only for the music. One scene revealed a vocal effect that branched out and used the surround channels. When a search party roams through Hanging Rock, they shout and call for the girls incessantly. One pair of guys yells into a pitch black cavern. Facing the left, as a man yells, his voice is the only thing to blare from the surround speakers. That's it. Everything else is front-heavy and unimpressive. All sounds appear clumped together and stack one on top of the other specifically in the front channels.
As for the quality of the mix, it's pretty strong. A few scenes (each featuring the stick-in-the-mud teacher that also goes missing on The Rock) have harsh voices that sound somewhat blown out, but only a few. Most vocals are crisp and clean.
The movie's score is very strong. When peaceful, a gentle piano-driven melody plays. It sounds fantastic. During the last moments of the girls' hike, just before the last time we see them, the eerie score emits a nice amount of bass. Accompanying it oddly is a strange thumping that sounds like pre-subwoofer LFE. It's doesn't exactly sound good, but it's obvious what they were going for.
I'm not one of those Criterion collectors who believes that every title they add to their collection is a masterpiece, but I do believe that every film they touch has some sort of merit, relevance, or significance to the medium. I'll probably never watch 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' again, but I can definitely see why the slow, methodical, and gorgeously-directed film was given the Criterion treatment. The abnormal Blu-ray packaging is fantastic, containing a beautiful case that fits the three-disc release and a copy of the original novel. The entire package will easily fit into your Blu-ray shelves. The video quality is quite impressive, but the front-heavy audio mix is lacking. With plenty of informative special features, some of which are old and some of which are new, there's more than enough in this Blu-ray release to keep you occupied – whether the movie itself is one that you'll revisit is another question.