Before Peter Weir became a popular Oscar-nominated director, he made films that excelled at creating an aura of mystery and unease. Weir’s Australian period showed a love for strangeness and audacity that has seldom resurfaced in his work again. Suffice to say that his first film, The Cars that Ate Paris, was a horror film about a seemingly normal little town that caused car accidents to sell the wreckage. His second film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a more ambitious work, based on a novel by Joan Lindsay, not only took the horror genre to artistic heights only seen in movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, but also brought Australian cinema international recognition.
Watching Picnic at Hanging Rock thirty-five years after its original release, now in blu-ray, one can clearly see how this was the foundation of Weir’s career and his undisputed masterpiece His films tend to portray a conflict between cultures, groups, ideas, ways of seeing and experiencing the world. His work has shown us a man discovering his life is a TV reality show, a mad scientist dragging his family to a tropical jungle for secret research, a lawyer discovering that secret tribal rituals are still practiced in modern Sydney, and students creating a subversive group within the walls of their oppressive school. It is this fascination with worlds running parallel and intruding upon each other, that has motivated much of Weir’s career. And it begins with Picnic at Hanging Rock.
In this film a group of schoolgirls visit, on St. Valentine’s Day, a geological formation known as Hanging Rock. It’s an unsettling place suffused with a mystical atmosphere. Four girls wander into the rocky labyrinth within and disappear without explanation. The film evokes scenes from David Lean’s A Passage to India, especially the expedition to the Marabar caves that ends in tragedy. Weir, years before Lean, was taking inspiration from the strange contrast between British colonials and the natural surroundings of their colonies, or rather their complete incongruity with the landscape. Watching these schoolgirls, in their corsets, ribbons, petticoats, bows, straw hats, reading love poems in the middle of rocks, one sees how out of place they are in those arid, dangerous surroundings.
Peter Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green keep the ambiguity of Joan Lindsay’s novel intact. Hypotheses come up but in the end they’re meaningless. This is a mystery without solution. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion comes from the way the movie is constructed instead of facts or deductive methods. In clocks that stop working, in the humming noises erupting from Hanging Rock, in the visions characters have, in the eerie melody of the pan pipes that constitute much of the soundtrack (courtesy of Romanian composer Gheorge Zamfir), a supernatural apprehension slowly creeps into the narrative. The director deftly manipulates the viewer into imagining many strange possibilities without showing much. But it’s just another level of interpretation. Like a character says, “There’s some questions got answers and some haven’t.”
The film develops at a slow pace, letting the viewer enjoy Russel Boyd’s beautiful cinematography. One may argue that it doesn’t take a lot of talent to make Australia’s landscapes gorgeous, but this Oscar-winning cinematographer’s craft lies in giving a scary, unfriendly feel to what is naturally beautiful. And the rich, warm colours will make anyone nostalgic for a time when cinema wasn’t dominated by washed out, teal and orange hues.
The new blu-ray transfer by Second Sight will leave anyone satisfied. It’s not just that the image and audio have excellent quality. The extra features are also a treat for anyone who wants to know more about this film. Especially rewarding is the making of documentary, “A Dream Within A Dream”, which not only gives a lot of information about the film’s conception and impact, but sheds light on the controversy regarding Peter Weir’s director’s cut. In 1998 Weir, going against the grain, decided to subtract instead of add scenes for a new release. That’s the version in this blu-ray release. As composer Bruce Smeaton says, the original version was the director’s cut; it was the movie he wanted to make at the time. Weir defends himself by arguing that the new version is the work of a director whose instincts and craft have matured in the past 35 years and that he merely removed extraneous moments to make a more powerful experience.
Of course it remains for each viewer to watch the film and decide whether he’s right or not. But whatever the verdict, Picnic at Hanging Rock stands as one of the most beautiful, intricate and mysterious films ever made and it reminds audiences that Peter Weir is one of the best directors working today.
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, Anne-Louise Lambert, John Jarratt, Dominic Guard
DVD reviewed: Picnic At Hanging Rock The Director’s Cut Blu-ray which will be released on 26th July. Pre-order it using the link below…