I’ve kept a notepad for a while now that contains several film titles that I’ve never seen before. I generally jot them down when I see a film mentioned, usually on social media, and then make a point of going through it and watching them. It’s a mix of obscure pictures and those big “I should have seen” films, and one that existed in the latter category until now was Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Directed by Peter Weir and released in 1975, Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on the celebrated 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. The setup is simple: a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College in Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, go for an excursion to the nearby beauty spot of Hanging Rock. It’s a wondrous location, with blankets of luscious green grass overseen by the primordial Hanging Rock, a huge geological formation. The outing is cut short when three of the girls and a schoolteacher are discovered to be missing, with a fourth girl, Irma, extremely distraught.
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From this, there becomes an obsession over not only finding the girls but examining the sheer mystery of what happened to them. People from the nearby town of Woodend assist, in particular the local police constable and two young men who saw the missing girls as they made a trip to the base of the rock. One of the girls is discovered, but she can remember nothing of what happened, which adds to the confusion.
Weir’s film examines the effect of the girls’ disappearance upon the school and the people from the town, from the willingness to help to the pondering of what could have happened. There’s a distressing scene where Irma returns to the school and is mobbed by her fellow students demanding to know what happened to them, and the picture starts to reveal the horror under the skin that begins to surface.
A subplot focuses on Sara, an orphan who shared a room with one of the girls who disappeared, and had feelings for her. Because of her lack of financial security, the headteacher decides that she is to be returned to the orphanage, a sad decision to be made under the circumstances, but you can also see the headteacher desperately trying to maintain her own mask, which is beginning to crack.
So much of the film is played around the repression of the school and the girls, and the difference between their regimented existence and the prehistoric natural world of Hanging Rock. Russell Boyd’s cinematography is amazing, with the rock formation and the surrounding area mesmerising in the bright light and colours of the outback, while the school is much more muted, and the girls are shot in an almost sepia tone. Equally effective is the score by flautist Gheorge Zamfir and composer Bruce Smeaton, which is both touching and beautiful and completely alien and mysterious.
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Second Sight has presented both the theatrical and director’s cut of the film in 4K with HDR, from a 4K scan of the original camera negative at 1.66:1. The film, supervised by Weir and Boyd, looks and sounds incredible, and it’s just a wonder to see and hear. Some thoughtful supplements are included, with a fantastic feature-length documentary called A Dream Within A Dream: The Making of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an audio commentary, several cast and crew interviews, and more. Second Sight has been doing great work for a while, and this title highlights just how good they can be. There’s also a special boxed edition that includes the 4K discs, a Blu-ray version, and a book of writing on the film and the original novel, although it’s a bit pricy at £60.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece; a gothic horror without the usual trappings and a beautiful meditation on sexuality and nature. A must for any film fan.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is out now on Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Second Sight.