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Arts & Culture

Nearly 40 Years Later, Secrets Of 'Hanging Rock' Still Beguiling

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Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
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Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), laying with nature.

Mystery abounds in Peter Weir’s “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” a movie that would not ever be made today both for its unresolved plot as well as the subtlety at which the movie suggests the budding sexuality of its young stars. If Hollywood were making this movie now, it would star a bikini-clad Selena Gomez and end with the revelation that she was swallowed by a UFO or something. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Released in 1975, “Picnic At Hanging Rock” was based on a “maybe-it’s-true” novel about the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher while on an outing to a rugged natural landmark in Australia on St. Valentine’s Day 1900. The date is significant, as the movie opens with giddy proclamations of love by the students of Appleyard College, all on the cusp of a full flowering as young women. The central character in the disappearance, Miranda, is even described as a “Botticelli angel” by one of her teachers, and fawned over by a classmate, Sara, who notes “Miranda knows lots of things other people don’t know. Secrets.”

What secrets are those? Something worldly, no doubt. It is Miranda who leads her classmates Irma, Marion, and Edith up the Hanging Rock formation following their titular picnic. The sun beats down on the rock, the girls sway back and forth, and in a series of close-up shots charged with eroticism, they remove their stockings and continue moving farther up the formation. Director Peter Weir slows down the camera ever so slightly when Miranda is on screen, heightening our awareness of her power. Then, three of the girls slip behind a large boulder while Edith, shrieking, runs back to the party at the foot of the formation.

The rest of the film is spent trying to put together the pieces of what happened. Conversations allude to clues or evidence, but no one knows for sure. The adults are left scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the little girls they once knew. When one of them does show up unexpectedly (discovered not by an adult but by a young man near her age), she’s ostracized by her classmates, and, wearing a symbolic red cloak, is bullied and badgered for answers as to what happened to the others, because “she knows!”

A second theme of the film common to Australian cinema is the tension between civilization and nature. In “Hanging Rock,” and in Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (1971), heck, even in “Crocodile Dundee” (1985), the city-slickers are schooled by the land. “How foolish can human creatures be!” remarks the soon-to-be-doomed Mrs. McCraw on her way to the picnic with her students, pointing out the dangers that lurk among the crevasses and passageways, including “venomous snakes and poisonous ants.”

And in “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” the formation itself seems to be alive (calling to young virgins?). Weir’s camera looks for “faces” in the igneous rock; the soundtrack of the film emits a low rumble, which incidentally sounds great in the 5.1 surround mix that’s included on the new DVD and Blu-ray of the film. Is it the rock itself that swallows the girls up? Does nature consume them?

“Picnic At Hanging Rock” is a movie that toys with our expectations of what a mystery is. There is no butler who did it, no “solution” other than coming to the understanding that the land — and a young woman’s heart — have for thousands of years, held secrets.

“Picnic At Hanging Rock” on Blu-ray

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“Picnic At Hanging Rock” was first issued by the Criterion Collection on DVD over a decade ago in a non-anamorphic transfer that also included few special features. Their new release improves on that immensely. The high-definition image beautifully showcases Russell Boyd’s cinematography, crisp as a bright summer day one moment, then gauzy and dreamy amidst the flowers the next moment. As mentioned in the essay above, the sound design of the film helps set the uneasy mood. Besides the sound effects, music is used in key moments in the film, including the panpipes of Zamfir, and my favorite use of Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto on film, which recurs on at least three occasions in the film.

The extra features on the disc include an interview with Peter Weir, and contemporary and period documentaries about the making of the film. Star Anne-Louise Lambert reveals she was nothing like her free spirited character in the film, but felt right for the part after Joan Lindsay, author of the original novel, addressed her as “Miranda” on set, hugging her and saying, cryptically, “It’s been such a long time.”

Speaking of Lindsay, perhaps the best feature included with the Blu-ray edition of “Picnic At Hanging Rock” is the novel itself! Yes, the whole book—out of print in America for many years—comes with the Blu-ray. It’s a wonderful addition to the set, and Criterion’s second foray into this territory after also including the novel “Red River” with the Western film of the same name. Here’s hoping that when appropriate they’ll continue the practice of bridging the literary and cinematic arts.