A haunting adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, the story is set at a Victorian girls school in Australia which is plunged into shock after some of the pupils go missing on a day trip to a local rock formation known as Hanging Rock.
Part of the appeal is blending of a realistic setting (despite being fiction) with a lyrical presentation, which features some exquisite cinematography by Russell Boyd.
Throughout his career Peter Weir has been a director of rare taste and intelligence and part of the reason this film still fascinates is down to its careful construction.
On paper the story could be a police procedural or even a horror film, but by emphasizing the mystery at the heart of it, Weir crafts a much more compelling tale of repressed emotions set against the sensual force of nature.
It explores similar territory to Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). Both feature a picnic gone wrong in the outback and depict anxious young people on the cusp of adulthood.
But whereas Walkabout stayed mostly in the outback and contrasted two cultures (the native and settler), Picnic mostly focuses on the school as it copes with the emotional fallout from the fateful trip.
It is also reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon: a community of repressed people manifests itself in sinister and mysterious ways, although Weir’s approach is less political and more open ended.
Both films understand that it is the unexplained aspects of a story that can resonate with audiences as they repeatedly fill in the mysterious blanks left unfilled by the narrative.
Of the ensemble cast, Rachel Roberts has the most prominent role as Mrs Appleyard, the stern headmistress, but many of the pupils are equally memorable, especially Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), Rosamund (Ingrid Mason) and Sara (Margaret Nelson).
The image of Lambert has become indelibly associated with the film, appearing on many of the international posters and also on this Blu-ray release.
Experiencing it in high definition for the first time, the visual look is especially striking, with the colours and locations given a new vibrancy by the new transfer.
Added to this is the improved audio, which adds an extra kick to the unmistakable pan pipe pieces by Gheorghe Zamfir that run throughout the film, along with various classical pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
Whether or not you have seen the film before, this is almost certainly the best it has looked since the original cinema release, although it should be noted that this is the ‘Director’s Cut’ Weir sanctioned in the late 1990s for the then DVD release.
Unusually Weir and producer Patricia Lovell opted to take footage out of the theatrical version rather than add it back in. The excised sequences ran to about 14 minutes of footage, most of which happen in the final third of the film.
That said there are plenty of extras included on this disc, most of which have appeared on previous DVD versions but still providing valuable context for first time viewers.
Most prominent is a comprehensive two-hour documentary detailing the production called ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, which features interviews with cast and crew including Peter Weir, Patricia Lovell, Hal & Jim Mcelroy, Cliff Green, Russell Boyd, Bruce Smeaton, Jose Perez, Helen Morse, John Jarratt, Christine Schuler and Anne Louise Lambert.
There is also an on set documentary from 1975 ‘A Recollection: Hanging Rock 1900’ which includes interviews with author Joan Lindsay, Weir and other members of the cast including Rachel Roberts.
One of the aspects of the story that keeps cropping up in the supplementary interviews is whether or not the story was based on real events. It wasn’t but Lindsay and Weir were shrewd in dodging the question for so long as it helped create word of mouth for audiences desperate to know if it was all really true.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Blu-ray of Picnic at Hanging Rock is that it reminds us the hypnotic power of the original film, which remains a classic of Australian cinema.