Picnic at Hanging Rock: Collectors Edition (1975)
Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Making Of-A Dream Within A Dream
Featurette-A Recollection-Hanging Rock 1900
Featurette-Joan Lindsay Interview
Audio-Only Track-Short Recollections-Karen Robson (Irma)
Gallery-Hanging Rock And Martindale Hall-Then And Now
Gallery-With Excerpt Of The Novel Read By Helen Morse
Short Film-The Day Of Saint Valentine, With Commentary
|Year Of Production||1975|
|RSDL / Flipper||
Dual Disc Set
|Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Peter Weir|
South Aust Film Corp
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.66:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
"On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace..."
Picnic at Hanging Rock, released in the mid 1970s, heralded the dawning of a new era in the Australian film industry - an industry that had lain dormant, some would say dying, for decades after its initial flourishing during the early years of the 20th century. It has become something of a phenomenon, taking on some of the mythic qualities its story so beautifully embodies. It has even made famed critic Roger Ebert's Great Movies book. Perhaps the surest sign though that a film has cemented itself in the public consciousness is when sketch comedies take hold of the material and spoof it - think Star Wars, the 'king of the world' scene in Titanic or Travis Bickle's monologue in front of the mirror in Taxi Driver. How many times have we seen someone screaming 'Miranda, Miranda!!' before a comedic flourish?
Peter Weir, Picnic's director, would go on to make three other tremendous films with a distinctly Australasian flavour - Gallipoli, The Last Wave and Year of Living Dangerously, before moving overseas and giving audiences decidedly more international fare - Witness, The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show and most recently the terrifically entertaining swashbuckler Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In so doing Weir was to launch the career of Hollywood megastar Mel Gibson and trumpet the arrival of the Australian 'New Wave', a group of directors, actors, film technicians and artisans (including Gillian Armstrong, Judy Davis and Bruce Beresford) who not only produced local films of an unprecedented number and quality but managed to stage a (still continuing) 'invasion' of that epicentre of English speaking cinema - Hollywood. One wonders whether the likes of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman (and many, many others!) would be the famed, glittering stars they are today had the Australian film industry not received that much needed rekindling Picnic at Hanging Rock was to (surprisingly) provide. Surprising because, as with many artistic works now regarded as masterpieces (Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby are but a couple of examples), initial reviews were mixed at best and scathing at worst.
Many people simply did not know what to make of the film upon its release. It was, and remains, a defiantly arty, surrealistic mystery. "A mystery without a solution," many, including Peter Weir take pride in telling us. Weir details the problems American audiences in particular had with the complete absence of a 'satisfying' resolution to the story, attributing their long held 'can do' attitude to the widespread frustration many felt because they couldn't find clues and solve the case, Nancy Drew or Lenny Briscoe style. Unlike Fargo, another film that gained notoriety in part because of its flirtation with being a 'true story', we do not, and likely never will know how much of the story is true and how much is not.
Joan Lindsay, the author of the book from which Cliff Green wrote the screenplay adaptation, closely guarded any would-be secret clues as to the story's truth, only occasionally offering tidbits which may have been clues, or merely red herrings. What this all illustrates of course is that 'solving' the mystery is hardly the point, and that the film's success and uniqueness rests largely on the fact that it is all so mysterious and dreamlike, as the quote from Edgar Allen Poe that begins the film reveals. Yes, it is about girls from a strict boarding school picnicking in Victorian bush land on St. Valentine's Day, circa 1900, and yes some of them did disappear in the most extraordinary circumstances whilst exploring the craggy, ancient formations of Hanging Rock, two of them, and a teacher never to return. However, just as one cannot hope to adequately summarise Raging Bull as a boxing movie, one cannot categorise Picnic at Hanging Rock as anything except itself.
Rachel Roberts delivers a terrifying performance, conveying much of the inner turmoil which abounds in the film, as the school's headmistress - a woman that, like Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in the brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, seems to have subsumed her sexuality to protect herself from emotional weakness in order to fulfil her position of authority. One is reminded of Lady Macbeth's classic monologue, calling on the powers above to dry her milk and harden her heart so that she could further her husband's interests. It is in stark contrast to the carefree beauty of the stunning Helen Morse, playing the French Mlle. de Poitiers and of course, Miranda, who assumes all the mythic beauty of a nubile Aphrodite.Can it be said that Roberts' character's actions (which I will not reveal) reflect the dehumanising effect of being transplanted from civility and order into a land of primeval urges and (for Europeans at least) loneliness? Weir seems fascinated by such notions - juxtaposing the savagery, beauty and sheer age of the Australian landscape with the prim and proper world of Edwardian England, complete with hats, tails and corsets, and its people, who sought desperately to make sense of the foreign land upon which they were thrown. The symbolic removal of the girls' gloves as they make their way to the picnic raises questions of awakening suppressed sexuality, questions that are never answered, only hinted at.
Whatever one makes of the film, its moments of beauty and stillness should be savoured. There is a sequence in the film when the girls and their teachers, nestled amongst the eucalypts, take refuge from the midday heat, which is particularly beautiful and so very Australian. It captures the unique beauty of our wonderful country, the somewhat unorthodox history of European settlement and conveys a palpable sense of that dry and drowsy, insect and bird-inflected summer heat only locals would ever totally understand. It is something quintessentially Australian. For whilst we may marvel at the grit and grime of Los Angeles in Chinatown or wait with bated breath for Miss Dashwood's dreams of married bliss to be realised in Sense and Sensibility, it is a privilege to immerse ourselves in our own stories - a privilege one hopes in this current time of stress and strain for local filmmakers doesn't become too rare.
We have been presented with a very good, though not completely satisfying transfer. It is framed at 1.77:1, without 16x9 enhancement. This is not the original aspect ratio, approved by Peter Weir as 1.66:1. That said, many have argued that the 1.77:1 framing is completely in keeping with the artistic integrity of the film.
Sharpness levels are deliberately not set at razor level. The film has the look of a surrealistic landscape and thus there is an occasional blurring of the lines. The transfer appears faithful to these intentions. Shadow detail is decent if not spectacular.
The colour palette is faithfully rendered, if not completely convincingly. Some of the shades are not as subtle as one would have liked, and skin tones were a little 'off' at times. Russell Boyd's painterly cinematography does look ravishing much of the time, however. It was good to see him acknowledged at the Academy Awards in 2004 for his work (with Weir again) in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
There are only relatively minor concerns with compression artefacts and grain. I cannot say they don't detract from the picture on occasion, but they are kept at bay for the most part.
Film to video artefacts are also relatively minor. Some aliasing does intrude on occasion.
The print is thankfully clean of most particles and, compared to the movie trailers which are of a similar vintage, it looks positively terrific.
The audio is faithful to the original film, but considering that a 5.1 Dolby Digital remix was approved by the director, it is a shame all we are presented with is a solitary English Dolby Surround 2.0 track, and without any subtitle options.
Sound, whether the haunting panpipe solos, the mysterious (though a little dated) score or the cracks and cries of the bush and its inhabitants, is vital to the film, and for the most part it is not hindered by the transfer.
Audio sync is well handled, and there are no obviously distracting blemishes.
Dialogue is a little muffled at times, but is well balanced.
The subwoofer and surrounds can be activated to provide a nice level of ambience and some important depth to some of the more haunting scenes.
|Surround Channel Use|
There have been many releases of this classic on DVD but none have had the sheer wealth of terrific extras this new one offers.
A Dream Within a Dream: The Making of Picnic at Hanging Rock is an excellent nearly two hour documentary, presented at 1.33:1, possibly the first to run longer than the film it's about. It features Peter Weir, co-producing brothers Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy, actors Anne Louise Lambert (who is critical of Weir for his 'director's cut'), Helen Morse, John Jarratt (of Better Homes and Gardens fame - or infamy!), Cliff Green, Russell Boyd, composer Bruce Smeaton, and José Perez. The feature is something of a film buff's dream as it incorporates scores of rare footage of Weir’s early short films. Hilariously, it also includes the truly awful American dub of The Cars That Ate Paris. This is a truly memorable documentary - one of the very best of its type I've seen.
A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900, is a twenty five minute documentary that is much less memorable, and a lot more dated. Patricia Lovell presents it, and interviews a very young yet still wise looking and sounding Weir, the ever elegant and sharp Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard and Rachel Roberts. The picture quality (it is presented at 1.33, as are all the extras) is variable, and the print is quite speckled - but it is valuable to have interviews with cast members not featured in the longer documentary.
Interview with Joan Lindsay is an excellent if a little poorly presented fifteen minutes with the author, who talks quite candidly about her early life (as a painter) and how she sort of ended up with a writing career (how I loathe these people who just stumble into writing whilst others must suffer through agonizing aspirations).
Audio interview with Karen Robson, another interesting fifteen minutes in which Robson, who played Irma and who is now an American-based entertainment lawyer, details her recollections of filming Picnic.
Hanging Rock: Then and Now is a short montage of the locations then and now - presented in a similar way to those on the DVD for Once Upon A Time in the West, set to those eerie panpipes.
Trailers: we are presented with a collection of trailers, all in pretty poor shape, but they do look authentic. There is a ad for a double feature with Michael Pate’s 1977 film The Mango Tree (0:55) and another that sits Picnic alongside Weir's The Last Wave.
Gallery: A stills and poster gallery that runs for just over seven minutes, with the wonderful Helen Morse reading from Joan Lindsay’s novel.
The Eve of Saint Valentine: Finally we have a little piece of film history - a 1969 amateur film, made by a thirteen year old student, Anthony S. Ingram, who we are told made the film on weekends with some friends.
Addendum (14 April)
My thanks to everyone who has made comments on this review. It is clear that this is a film (and DVD release) close to many people's hearts, which, considering my sentiments expressed in the review, is heartening to see (so long as it means a continuing championing of Australian cinema and not a nostalgic yearning for decades past, which is entirely unhelpful). It seems, unlike many of you, I have not had the privilege of assessing the respective merits of each and every individual DVD release, so I am thankful for comments made about them, and comparisons with this latest Umbrella release.
After some further investigation I can suggest the following for those looking for the best of both (or all worlds) as the case may be:
This Umbrella release has, by far, the best extras package assembled for a Picnic at Hanging Rock DVD release, but, as noted in my review, the transfers, both audio and video, are not the greatest.
The Region 2 (PAL) Kinowelt release from Germany has the best video transfer, with an apparently wonderful 16x9 enhanced, 1.78:1 framed presentation of the film. It also includes the scenes cut by director Peter Weir for his director's cut, though not available to see reinserted into the film via seamless branching a la The Abyss, and a movie trailer. It also has the excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 track, in the original English (or Australian), accompanied by German subtitles (which can be switched off), and another other Dolby 1.0 track in dubbed German. It is currently available from www.amazon.de for €14,99, which at the moment is approximately $25 AUS, not including postage.
The Region 2 (PAL) Pathe release from the UK has a 16x9 enhanced transfer of a 1.78:1 framing of the film, which is apparently very good (significantly better than the Umbrella release) though not as good as the Kinowelt release. It also loses the deleted scenes, trailer and only has a Dolby Stereo 2.0 English track (possibly the same as the Umbrella). It is recommendable for those who want a better video transfer than that found on the Umbrella release but don't want to fork out in excess of $30 or so to have the Kinowelt shipped to them. Currently it can be bought from www.amazon.co.uk for £5.97, not including postage, which is about $15 AUS.
The Criterion Region 0 (NTSC) release has a very sharp transfer, and is apparently the release of choice for those with standard 4:3 TV screens (yes there are still out there). It is currently the only release available that presents the film at its originally intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but it is not 16x9 enhanced. It does have however, apparently the best audio transfer of all the releases - English 5.1 Dolby Digital - slightly richer and having greater dynamic range than the admittedly excellent Kinowelt transfer.
To complicate matters further there is yet another release from Gaumont in France (Region 2 PAL), as part of a four DVD set of Weir's early films, including The Last Wave, The Plumber and The Cars that Ate Paris. It has good video and audio transfers (1.78:1, with 16x9 enhancement and Dolby Stereo 2.0 tracks in English and French) though not better than the Kinowelt, perhaps on par with the Pathe (UK) release, although there have been some reported problems. It is distinguished from the other releases by virtue of its extras package, which includes an interview with Patricia Lovell, running approximately twenty three minutes, filmographies and some quite rare short films 'Dust' and 'Lost' (apparently due for Australian release as part of a Peter Weir collection soon - but who knows). It retails from www.amazon.fr for €44.05, which is currently about $74 AUS, without postage.
So, which is the winner? Someone asked me to be more 'objective' so I must say none of them - undetermined. None of the releases are absolutely ideal. If you could pick and choose you'd want the Criterion's correct aspect ratio and sound, with the Kinowelt's picture quality and 16x9 enhancement, plus its deleted scenes, coupled with the Umbrella extras disc, at the price of the Pathe release, maybe with the shorts from the Gaumont release thrown in for good measure, so long as their inclusion didn't compromise the video quality.
I was quite happy with the Umbrella release, in spite of its flaws, but for those wanting something better, the best bet may be to order the Kinowelt release for video and audio, throw out Disc 1 of the Umbrella release, and keep the extras disc. With the Umbrella release of Picnic at Hanging Rock currently selling at www.ezydvd.com.au for $22.83 (free delivery) you could have a very good 'compilation' release for about $60 AUS.
A seminal Australian film.
Very good video.
Good, balanced audio.
The extras package is one of the very best I've encountered.
|DVD||Yamaha DVR-S100, using Component output|
|Display||Sony 76cm Widescreen Trinitron TV. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD Player, Dolby Digital and DTS. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.|
|Amplification||Yamaha DVR-S100 (built in)|
|Speakers||Yamaha NX-S100S 5 speakers, Yamaha SW-S100 160W subwoofer|