Nearly 40 years on, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) remains as mysterious a film as ever. The passage of time, the many discussions and interpretations of it, and even Weir’s own subsequent works have done little to shed light on the central question in this movie. Much like the girls in the gym do upon greeting Irma (Karen Robson) when she returns from Hanging Rock, we viewers may shout “What happened?” at the screen, as the credits roll by.
One can only conclude that the mystery itself is the point, and whatever we have fantasized about the fate of the girls is what happened to them. In presenting a mystery without resolution, Weir’s film made audiences angry. It also created a legend, as Picnic at Hanging Rock is an unforgettable piece of cinema.
The date is February 14, 1900, and the young ladies of Appleyard College are getting ready for a picnic at Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. Watching these teenage girls get dressed, tease, and laugh with each other feels voyeuristic, and this is a theme that will come up again and again. After Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) warns them to watch out for “venomous snakes,” and not to climb the dangerous rock, she allows them the unprecedented freedom to take off their gloves if they become too hot. Then the buggy takes off, with about 20 white-dressed girls bouncing their way to the picnic.
As we see in the opening scene, these ladies have their own social order, with Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) clearly at the top. And this outing provides them all with a rare opportunity to do more than just take off their gloves, with Miranda leading the way. They spread out to explore the grounds, and Weir’s camera follows the most adventurous group, the foursome of Miranda, Irma, Marion (Jane Vallis), and tag-along Edith (Christine Schuler).
The geological formation called Hanging Rock is stunning, and strangely inviting. As David Thomson says in the Introduction, “The image of those young virgins in white walking towards this immense, brutal rock is profound.” Indeed, it is almost a primal image, as if they are willingly giving themselves over to sacrifice.
As the group climbs higher and higher, Edith becomes more and more agitated. Hers is the voice of reason, yet nobody is listening. Finally, as Miranda, Irma, and Marion go through a narrow chasm, Edith stops, and shrieks that she cannot go on. The trio act as if they are in a trance, and continue on without even acknowledging her.
When the buggy returns to the college late at night, it is without Miranda, Irma, Marion or Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray). Only Edith returned from the Rock, and Miss McCraw went looking for the missing trio. She did not come back either. The remainder of the film is spent in searching for the lost women, and in theorizing as to what happened. There are also some terrible scenes involving Mrs. Appleyard and Sara (Margaret Nelson), who was not allowed to attend the picnic at all. In the end, these two will also become unexplained casualties.
When Irma is found, we hope for an answer, but she cannot remember what happened. As mentioned earlier, the confrontational scene of the girls screaming “What happened” at her is a climactic moment of the film.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is an adaptation of the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. Beyond the very strange, discomforting, and symbolism-laced narrative is the incredible cinematography of Russell Boyd. In fact, Boyd won the BAFTA Award that year for his work.
The scenery of Hanging Rock itself is gorgeous, but it is the soft-focus moments that make the film more than the sum of its parts. So much of what happens seems like a dream, and again enhances the voyeuristic sensation. Showing mastery of the craft, it is after these dream-like sequences that Weir quickly cuts to a shot of a butcher knife rapidly cutting into a heart-shaped Valentine’s cake. The suggestion of horror is impossible to ignore.
As part of the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray and DVD combo pack, Picnic at Hanging Rock includes one BR disc and two DVDs, plus a booklet with essays about the film, and a Penguin Books paperback copy of the source novel by Joan Lindsay. The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. It looks and sounds fantastic.
As ever, Criterion have included a great deal of supplemental features. The first of these is the previously mentioned “Introduction” (9:30), by film scholar David Thomson, which was recorded in 2014, specifically for this edition. The “Peter Weir Interview” (25:00) was recorded in 2003 with the director. “Everything Begins and Ends” (30:24) is a Criterion Collection documentary made in 2014 and includes interviews from 2003 with executive producer Patricia Lovell, producers Hal and Jim McCelroy, cinematographer Russell Boyd, and actors Helen Morse and Anne-Louise Lambert.
A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900 (26:13) is a 1975 documentary made by executive producer Patricia Lovell which includes interviews with author Lindsay, director Weir, and cast members Rachel Roberts and Dominic Guard.
As intriguing as all of this material is, the jewel of the bonus features is the inclusion of Weir’s Homesdale (1971) film. This 50-minute black and white feature was shot at Weir’s home in Sydney and won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Australian Film Industry Awards. It was this unusual black comedy that led executive producer Patricia Lovell to ask Weir to direct Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adding something like this as a bonus feature is what makes Criterion the Gold Standard among Blu-ray and DVD companies. The final bonus feature is the theatrical trailer (4:35).
By not answering the question of what happened to the girls at Hanging Rock, Weir’s film forces viewers to supply their own answers. No wonder Picnic at Hanging Rock is credited as kicking off the Australian film renaissance of the ‘70s. It is one of the boldest movies ever made.