❉ Mark Cunliffe on the definitive edition of Peter Weir’s enigmatic classic.
‘A bold and mystifying feature full of imagery and sounds in perfect harmony that will remain ingrained upon your brain forever, Picnic at Hanging Rock is also a film in which the mystery at its core is never actually resolved… The mystery itself and how it makes you feel, and how it affects those characters in the film left behind, is the key here.’
1st May sees the definitive limited edition Blu-ray and 4K UHD release of a film that has bewitched me ever since I first laid eyes on it in my early teens – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Set on Valentine’s Day in 1900, Peter Weir’s film tells the story of a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College who take a day’s leisurely picnic at the titular site near Mt. Macedon in the Australian state of Victoria. During that afternoon, several members of the party disappear without trace and life for the survivors will never be the same again.
The movie was an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, oft considered to be one of the greatest books to come out of Australia and oft considered erroneously to be based on fact. Whilst its setting is an actual place and the novel is written in the form of a true story, the fact of it is that the mysterious events depicted in Lindsay’s novel (and latterly Weir’s movie) did not happen, though Lindsay herself proved unwilling in dispelling the myth that they in fact did. “Well, it was written as a mystery and remains a mystery” the author enigmatically explained a year before the film’s release. “If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of the place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that the story, if you can call it a story – that thing that happened on St Valentine’s Day – went on spreading, out and out and out, into circles”.
A highly original film, the release of Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975 was met by resounding international critical and commercial acclaim. Weir’s film, alongside the likes of Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971) and The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) to name but a few, formed part of the Australian cinema’s New Wave, movies that preoccupied themselves with the nation’s remarkable landscape and distinctive geographical features which seemingly go hand in hand or are echoed by instances of sharp, sudden violence and an equally primal sexuality.
As with those films and the likes of Long Weekend (1978) that were to follow, Picnic at Hanging Rock depicts and suggests an Australia that is too ancient, too wild and mystical and just too downright bloody weird a place for habitation and civilisation. It is a land that we ‘interfere’ with at our peril. This sense of folly is represented acutely in the narrative by the buttoned-up, repressed and virginal young turn of the century women as we are left to consider how the rugged, elemental landscape, the unknowable ‘bush’ that they find themselves in, takes a peculiar and insidious effect upon them.
And it’s a film that will likely have a similar effect on the viewer too. As a child I watched an awful lot of Australian cinema, not only because I grew up in the 1980s and the impact of Australian New Wave was still being felt at the time, but also because my parents – who very nearly emigrated there in the early 70s – enjoyed the country’s movie and TV output. The young me always came away from watching such output with a stultified and deeply uncomfortable feeling, which I put down to the intolerable heat and themes these films often focused on. Watching Picnic at Hanging Rock in my formative years was no different, however this is undoubtedly a film that deliberately sets out to make its audience feel unsettled. Weir’s film is one that intentionally nags at you, one that haunts and lingers in your mind, challenging your thoughts and what you feel you know. Have you ever dozed off after a few drinks outside on a hot summer’s day only to wake from a disturbing dream where, when left to recount the day’s events, you’re not altogether sure what was real and what was imagined? Well, that’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
A bold and mystifying feature full of imagery and sounds in perfect harmony that will remain ingrained upon your brain forever, Picnic at Hanging Rock is also a film in which the mystery at its core is never actually resolved. Such ambiguity is expected in several films based on fact – Oliver Stone’s JFK for example, based on the assassination of the John F Kennedy, an incident hotly disputed to this day – but it is a rarity when it comes to fiction. Audiences simply expect fiction to have a neatly wrapped up conclusion and Weir isn’t willing to deliver one here. Indeed, Weir recounts how one US distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen after watching the film, disgusted that after two hours he was left none the wiser!
This may prove a stumbling block for some audiences, but to concentrate on looking for an answer or what it all means is something that I personally feel, misses the point of the film. The mystery itself and how it makes you feel, and how it affects those characters in the film left behind, is the key here. It’s telling that, whilst Lindsay did provide a solution of sorts in chapter eighteen of her original manuscript, it was actually withdrawn on her publisher’s advice at the time of its release and only subsequently published separately and posthumously in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock. A summary of this is available at a glance online if you’re inclined to seek it out, but don’t expect a rational answer, it is in fact just more information. Again, to look for the conclusion, ‘an answer’, would simply be missing the point.
The Second Sight release sees a new 4k scan and restoration from the original negatives of both the director’s cut and theatrical version of the movie approved by Weir and DoP Russell Boyd across a four disc set featuring 2UHDs and 2 Blu-rays, whilst the extras include a cornucopia of treats for admirers of the film looking to dive deep into its mysteries. There’s an audio commentary from film academics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, new interviews with personnel including actor Karen Robson, camera operator John Seale and DoP Russell Boyd, an archive interview with Joan Lindsay, a featurette from Thomas Caldwell on the film’s enduring mystery, outtakes, a trailer and a feature length documentary entitled Dream within a Dream. Unavailable to this reviewer were the soft cover book accompanying the release featuring new essays by Daniel Bird, Kat Ellinger and Justine Smith, and an archive essay by Rebecca Harkins-Cross, the original novel by Lindsay and a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork from Thinh Dinh along with six collector’s art cards.
• A new Second Sight Films 4K scan and restoration from the original camera negative supervised and approved by director Peter Weir and director of photography Russell Boyd
• Dual format 4-disc set featuring 2 UHDs and 2 Blu-rays
• UHDs presented in HDR
• Includes restorations of the Director’s Cut and original Theatrical Cut
• Audio commentary by film academics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson
• A Lovely Day for a Picnic: a new interview with actor Karen Robson
• Finding the Light: a new interview with director of photography Russell Boyd
• Crashing Through Boundaries: a new interview with camera operator John Seale
• Something Beyond Explanation: Thomas Caldwell on Picnic at Hanging Rock
• A Dream Within a Dream feature length documentary
• An interview with Joan Lindsay
• Recollection: Hanging Rock 1900
• Original long trailer
Limited Edition Contents:
• Rigid slipcase with new artwork by Thinh Dinh
• Soft cover book with new essays by Daniel Bird, Kat Ellinger and Justine Smith, archive essay by Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Costume Gallery, feature on the original marketing of the film and the new restoration
The original novel with exclusive cover by Thinh Dinh
• Six collectors’ art cards
• Pre-order Picnic at Hanging Rock: Limited Edition 4K UHD & Blu-ray (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4171) here: https://amzn.to/3EBMEUT
• Pre-order Picnic at Hanging Rock: Standard Edition Blu-ray (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4172) here: https://amzn.to/3Z3vvM4
• Pre-order Picnic at Hanging Rock: Standard Edition 4K/UHD (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4173) here: https://amzn.to/3Z1dyxw
❉ ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ released 1 May 2023 from Second Sight Films. Limited Edition 4K UHD & Blu-ray (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4171), Standard Edition Blu-ray (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4172), Standard Edition 4K/UHD (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4173). Running Time: 107 mins. Cert: PG.
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.
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