Criterion 4K: The Haunting Beauty and Mystery of Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Picnic at Hanging Rock wasn’t Australian director Peter Weir’s first feature film, but it was the one that put him on the spotlight and cemented him as the “Peter Weir” we know today.

Many Australian films, especially period pieces or films set in the Outback (Picnic is both), have a certain uniquely rustic and dangerous air which can’t be replicated. The Australian New Wave and closely-linked Ozploitation boom of the 1970s brought about an exciting time of new filmmakers and stars, with Peter Weir and Picnic at Hanging Rock among the most celebrated and influential (second only to the twin powers of George Miller and Mel Gibson in Mad Max and its even more influential post-apocalyptic sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior).

Picnic at Hanging Rock is every bit as visceral, haunting, and vital as its exploitation brethren, but cloaked instead in ethereal beauty, frilly lace school dresses, pretty parasols, and tightly pulled corsets.

The tale concerns an English-style ladies boarding school, the characters its students, teachers, and surrounding community. On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the class of girls, accompanied by a teacher and some young men employed as their driver and escorts, visit the towering volcanic rock formation known as Hanging Rock (a real location in Victoria, Australia).

Exactly what happened on the rock is a mystery – but what is known is that a few of the girls, and their teacher, disappeared, leading to a massive and sustained hunt to find the girls – or their bodies.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot, but stylistically it’s anything but. Weir infuses the tale with a surreal, sinister, and suggestively supernatural sensation. Around the base of the rock where girls make their picnic and settle for a nap, as if under some enchantment, time seems to stand still. Indeed, even watches stop – a phenomenon of the magnetic rock, an unsatisfying explanation offers.

But high on the rock where a smaller group of the girls sneak off to explore, an exploratory intrigue, expressed in slow motion and long dissolves, gives way to a screaming wind, yawning caverns, and an enticement to progress further into the highest winding crags as if under some somnambulistic trance.

This haunting mystery and sinister power of suggestion is greatly enhanced by the panflute music of Gheorge Zamfir, whose uniquely earthy and evocative compositions are perhaps the most crucial ingredient in setting the film’s singular tone.

The sense of mystery only deepens as the search for the girls lingers on, despite the best efforts of distressed policemen and search parties, and especially the tenacious efforts of the young men who originally accompanied the girls, driven by a potent mix of guilt and affection. Developments and clues which might be expected to help explain the incident only serve to obscure it further instead.

The greatness of Picnic at Hanging Rock is a little hard to quantify, a film that’s as much about its deeply evocative bestirring and suggestions and implications teeming beneath-the-surface as the literal elements of its plot.

The film is both outstanding and visually rich, and deeply deserving of this new 4K UHD presentation.

The Package

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been previously released on by Criterion in various formats (an early entry, as indicated by its low spine number of 29), including Blu-ray releases beginning in 2014 as a deluxe Digibox package with the novel included, and later in a more standard standalone release.

Criterion’s new 4K UHD release of the film includes a 4K movie disc and Blu-ray with movie and extras, in the usual transparent “Criterion style” case and accompanying booklet (which has been revised to highlight the new UHD transfer). It’s described as new 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by Peter Weir and director of photography Russell Boyd, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.

One thing I’m not overly fond of is that Criterion 4K packages look virtually indistinguishable from their Blu-ray editions, with only a sticker on the wrap and a few small text signifiers to tell them apart. Certainly it’s no help when browsing discs at Barnes & Noble, especially by spines, and probably a source of great confusion to retail employees who might be tricked into price matching discs across different formats. I understand this is due to Criterion’s emphasis of the content over format, but some distinguishing designs would not be unwelcome.

Special Features and Extras

Most of the extras are in 1080i and have a prominent combing effect which may be noticeable on some equipment.

  • Interview with Peter Weir (25:00) – an interview with Weir is accompanied by clips from the film and assorted still images. My favorite part was Weir recalling meeting author Joan Lindsay and asking her the questions he had been explicitly instructed not to.
  • Everything Begins and Ends (30:24) – A more recent look back at the making of the film, featuring producers, cast, and crew members.
  • Introduction by David Thomson (9:30) – the author and historian shares a video essay introducing the film and its legacy
  • A Recollection… Hanging Rock 1900 – vintage documentary produced for television and hosted by executive producer Patricia Lovell, featuring interviews with cast and crew members as well as Joan Lindsay, author of the novel’s
  • Homesdale (1971), a black comedy by Weir
  • Trailer (4:35) – a vintage trailer, notably long and plot-structured by modern standards
  • English subtitles
  • Booklet with an essay by author Megan Abbott and an excerpt from Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide by Marek Haltof

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the accompanying Blu-ray disc (not the 4K UHD) with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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