Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Synopsis

This sensual and striking chronicle of a disappearance and its aftermath put director Peter Weir on the map and helped usher in a new era of Australian cinema. Based on an acclaimed 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock is set at the turn of the twentieth century and concerns a small group of students from an all-female college who vanish, along with a chaperone, while on a St. Valentine’s Day outing. Less a mystery than a journey into the mystic, as well as an inquiry into issues of class and sexual repression in Australian society, Weir’s gorgeous, disquieting film is a work of poetic horror whose secrets haunt viewers to this day.

Picture 7/10

Criterion upgrades Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock to 4K UHD, presenting the film's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a triple-layer disc. Presented in HDR10, the 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition master has been sourced from a 4K restoration overseen by Weir and taken from scans of the 35mm original negative and multiple 35mm interpositives. Criterion includes a 1080p version on a standard dual-layer disc, which comes from an older restoration and is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Having heard word around Second Sight’s own 4K release, which featured what was heavy noise reduction and filtering in the base master, I expected Criterion’s to feature the same since it would most certainly use the same restoration, and sure enough, that proved to be the case. The results aren’t as bad as expected, but that doesn't mean this isn't a problematic restoration.

The encoding looks fine. Highlights are good, and I didn’t detect the common problem with macroblocking that even plagues Criterion’s stronger presentations. I’d also say the grain looks fine, but most of it has been washed away via heavy noise reduction in the base master anyway. It’s still kind of there to a degree, but it’s clear most of it has been washed away.

For the most part, this doesn’t severely impact the finer details, at least not aggressively. The title location's rocky area still looks relatively strong and sharper than the previous Blu-ray. I thought some of the intricacies and patterns in the costumes came through incredibly well. Where things get frightfully bad is in everyone’s faces: they all look waxy, veering on plastic in texture. It’s also heightened through HDR, with the reflection of light off sweaty skin further enhancing that plastic appearance. A shot can look okay, acceptable at best, but then you have this waxy-looking mug dead center on the screen, giving off an eerie, uncanny valley sort of sensation at its worst.

And it’s a shame, a distracting one because there are some strengths here. In some respects, it is better overall than the previous Blu-ray, whose encoding hasn’t aged terribly well. I also loved what the broader dynamic range brings to this, especially in the shots that follow the girls exploring the rock. The stark contrast and enhanced shadow detail look wonderful during this presentation's best moments, and I can't stress enough how great this aspect is.

Unfortunately, it appears Weir and company wanted to clean the image up and went overboard in the process. Yes, it looks far cleaner but they've tinkered and reconstructed so much it now looks more unnatural and digital.

Audio 8/10

The film comes with a 5.1 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD MA. Like the previous releases (including Criterion's original DVD), most of the audio, including the dialogue, is directed to the front speakers, while the film's music and score fill out the surroundings. It sounds deep and rich, with notable direction between the speakers. Yet again, it's all very subtle but effective.

Extras 7/10

All features are found on the included standard Blu-ray, replicating the previous releases. No features are found on the 4K. First, a 9-minute introduction by film scholar David Thomson. He discusses the impact film had on the Australian industry, opening up the country's films to the world, almost certainly thanks to its European style.

Criterion then presents a 25-minute interview with director Peter Weir, recorded in 2003. Weir shares his insights, revealing that adapting a book to film in Australia was unheard of, making him a little unsure how to approach the work. He was able to talk to the author, Joan Lindsay, and it seems he hoped to have her unravel things a bit, even asking her questions he was told not to ask. He realized making a film with no resolution was dangerous, and he gives some details about how he attempted to give the idea that a resolution was probably not coming throughout the film. I'm guessing that this was to aid in the eventual letdown most audiences would experience. From here, he gets more technical, talking about the film's look, the editing, and the film's music, all of which sounds to have just fallen into place.

It's an excellent interview, with Weir explaining his intent. It's accompanied by a making-of produced by Criterion (though it seems all the interviews were filmed in 2007, suggesting this new edition has been in the works for a long while.) This documentary,  Everything Begins and Ends, features producers Hal and Jim McElroy, executive producer Patricia Lovell, cinematographer Russell Boyd, and actors Helen Morse and Anne Louis Lambert. The collection of interviews adds to Weir's comments, with the crew talking about the production coming together, getting locations to film at, and what it was like at the mysterious Hanging Rock'most everyone found the location mystical, except Morse admits she didn't see it to be that at all. The importance of Morse's casting is expanded upon, and the producers talk about how they wanted to make people think the film was based on a true story. Still, the most interesting portion is probably with Boyd, who talks about capturing the look of the film and how that was accomplished, and his fear of being fired when he explained the needed light was only available for an hour a day while at Hanging Rock. The producers then talk about the film, first showing it to audiences and the adverse reactions they received from them. It's a pretty typical talking-heads making-of but well worth viewing along with Weir's interview. It runs for 30 minutes.

Criterion next provides an archival feature, the on-set documentary A Recollection' Hanging Rock 1900. Running 26 minutes, it offers behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Weir and other cast members (including Rachel Roberts talking about her character.) There's also a brief interview with the author, Joan Lindsay, who talks about first visiting Hanging Rock as a child. There are also interviews with locals, and some talk about how the film and book could be based on an actual missing person's case. There's also some discussion on what may have happened to the characters in the story—a nice inclusion.

Criterion then includes Weir's Homesdale, a 49-minute short film the director made in 1971. The film seems to center on a health spa where a group of repeat guests show up, with one or two new attendees. They then seem to go through a series of games and scenarios at the hands of the staff, with the goal of bringing certain "patients" out of their shells. Unfortunately, this also seems to include murder, one lifted right out of Psycho. It's labeled as a black comedy, and it's undoubtedly off-kilter with a couple of chuckles, but it's dark, with a real sense of unease thanks to Weir's style, which is counter-balanced by the film's absurd up-tempo music. It's an experiment in style and tone on Weir's part, and you can see some of his techniques were improved upon in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The disc then closes with the film's theatrical trailer. The booklet replicates the previous one, with an essay on the film and its themes by Megan Abbott, followed by an excerpt from Marek Haltof's book Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide, which goes over the Australian New Wave. Sadly, this edition does not include the novel (with the "bonus" chapter explaining what happened to the girls) included in the 2014 dual-format edition. The Blu-ray reissue also lacked the novel.

Disappointingly, Criterion has still chosen not to include the original theatrical cut, which runs a little longer. Again, I would have appreciated the excised or altered scenes included as a separate supplement.

Again, it's an okay set of material nicely covering the film's production.

Closing

It's a reasonably frustrating edition. Some aspects of the presentation are better than the previous Blu-ray, but the excessive filtering and waxy faces are incredibly unappealing.

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Directed by: Peter Weir
Year: 1975
Time: 107 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 29
Licensor: Picnic Productions Pty. Ltd.
Release Date: April 09 2024
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.66:1 ratio
1.78:1 ratio
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: HDR10
 
 Interview with Peter Weir   Program on the making of the film, featuring interviews with executive producer Patricia Lovell, producers Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy, and cast members   Introduction by film scholar David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film   On-set documentary hosted by Lovell and featuring interviews with Peter Weir, actor Rachel Roberts, and source-novel author Joan Lindsay   Homesdale(1971), a black comedy by Weir   Trailer   An essay by author Megan Abbott and an excerpt from film scholar Marek Hatlof’s 1996 book Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide