Friday, March 11, 2016

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK: Blu-ray (Australia Film Commission, 1975) Criterion Home Video

So what really happened to a small party of school girls picnicking at Hanging Rock in 1900? Author, Joan Lindsay remained aloof in establishing whether or not the story was a work of fiction or fact. Despite a virtual absence of documented history to suggest anything out of the ordinary had occurred in the shadow of this brooding natural landmark, Lindsay refused to settle the question for anyone, deferring director, Peter Weir in his initial inquiry with a curt reply, “Young man…I hope you will not ask the question again!” Weir did not. But he did valiantly pursue the author to draw out some speculations regarding the haunting disappearance of four school girls from Appleyard Academy. Were they abducted by aliens? Did they fall down a hole? Were they eaten by wild animals? Lindsay could not – or, perhaps would not – commit to a plausible explanation – even an improbable one – only serving to compound the air of mystery swirling about her runaway best seller; Picnic at Hanging Rock, first published in 1967. Bravo to Lindsay, who went to her grave preserving this anonymity while shrugging her shoulders whenever subsequent inquiries were made. Weir’s cinematic adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is a rather unnerving masterwork; the film’s contrasted sexual repression, depicted by these virginal young lasses, momentarily liberated from their corsets, only to be snuffed out in the prime of their blossom and thus never to reach the peak of their burgeoning sexual curiosity, is contrasted with the obsessive aftermath to uncover the truth; particularly, the insatiable drive of one young man, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) compelled to probe the unknown to the edge of his own misery and detriment.
Despite Lindsay’s crisp refusal to entertain Weir’s hypotheses, she fast became not only a most-welcomed consultant on his movie, but also a close confident and good friend. “Peter and Joan were instant soulmates,” Helen Morose, who played Mlle. de Poitiers, later commented, “There was a connection there – immediate and lasting; a bond, really.” “She was a woman of vanished refinements,” Weir would add to this assessment, “…and elegance, almost as vanished as that of the story she had written.” Indeed, Morose and others in the cast felt a similarly timeless kindship to Lindsay from the outset. “The first time I met her was on location,” Morose explained, “She came straight away and said ‘Bonjour, Mam’selle’, thereafter conversing with me in French for several hours. She really kept me on my toes. But it was extraordinary…as though she was looking beyond the actor playing the part and conversing with the characters she had created.”
Anne-Louise Lambert, who replaced another actress slated for the pivotal role as Miranda, had a similar story to tell. “It was very near the beginning and I had had something of a bad time of it,” Lambert recalls, “…wandering off between takes to be by myself when I suddenly became aware of this woman hurrying in my direction. I just knew it had to be Joan. And she came up to me and hugged me so very tightly and in a rather sad sympathetic tone whispered in my ear, ‘Oh Miranda…it’s been so long.’ It relieved some of my anxiety to know the author of the book found something in me that was fitting to play the part…but the immediacy with which she recognized this led me to believe something about this story…if, in fact, it had not happened as she had written it, nevertheless had happened to her when she was very young.” “I was startled to learn Lindsay dreamed the whole thing,” Morose later suggested, “Over the course of something like four weeks, it gnawed away at her until she had to commit it to paper.”
Anne Lambert was not the first choice to play the part of Miranda; actress, Ingrid Mason hand-picked by producer, Patricia Lovell at the outset. However, after only a few days shooting, Weir quietly approached Lovell to point out things were not working out as planned, but almost as quickly identifying a suitable replacement already in their midst. “Peter said, ‘this is the one’”, Hal McElroy explained, “Pointing to Anne…and indeed, she was.” Upon consideration, Lovell and producers, Hal and John McElroy concurred with Weir; Lovell, doing damage control to convince Mason to remain in the film, playing the considerably smaller part of mousy and emotionally fragile Rosamund. In hindsight, there was nothing about Peter Weir that ought to have made him the first choice to direct Picnic at Hanging Rock; a relative novice. Almost by accident, Weir had come to the McElroy's attention association with ‘The Cars That Ate Paris’ (1974); a shot-on-a-shoestring horror/comedy with minimal appeal, since gone on to become a cult classic. Impressed by Weir’s work ethic; also, his ability to assimilate copious research, as well as write and direct his own material with a clear-eyed vision, the McElroys believed him a splendid choice to tackle Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Alas, the Australian film industry had struggled for some time to find its niche after a particularly prosperous post-war period, with hugely successful historical dramas like The Overlanders (1946) and Eureka Stockade (1949). In the fallow period immediately to follow, Australia’s reputation in the entertainment industry fell on hard times. Then came 1971’s Walkabout; a stark and lyrical drama directed by Nicholas Roeg, met with international acclaim. “In Australia then,” Weir would later muse, “…what was selling was B-budgeted contemporary comedies with material expressly written for the screen. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person. I think films remain outside of nostalgia. But the idea of making a film from a book was then very foreign in Australia. It sounded the big time. And here we came with this idea to do a movie not only from a best-selling novel, but also in period. I mean, it simply wasn’t done over here then. That was something they did in Hollywood.”
Yet, Weir would prove an inspired choice – his ability to express in visual terms the inner life of a character - the intensity of their feelings - a sublime meditation on a dream, absolutely essential in capturing the essence of Joan Lindsay’s riveting mystery. Picnic is not a whodunit per say, but a ‘what happened?’ as it were; the surviving characters – as well as the audience - left to contemplate the eternal ‘why?’ in the great beyond, as no concrete evidence emerges to support the notion the girls have met with an untimely end. In some ways, Picnic at Hanging Rock is quite deliberately an offshoot of the French New Wave, its indecisive finale infuriating some patrons and critics, while enthralling others to similar degrees of ruminating distraction. Marketing of the day attempted to align the picture’s success with the highbrow horror genre, tagging Picnic as ‘a study in evil’. Indeed, the picture has some of the scholastic qualities of a psychological thriller; especially embodied in the schoolmarm, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts); a gargoyle, simultaneously feared/loathed by her pupils. Her decision to send these unsuspecting girls to Hanging Rock in the first place is a most curious one; the rock, so described as a perilous conglomeration of weirdly shaped volcanic outcroppings, set in an area plagued by stifling heat and infestations of various insects and snakes; hardly the ideal setting for a ‘picnic’, but especially for young ladies of quality who have yet to venture beyond the relative safety of their sequestered youth.
The location chosen to stand in for the fictional Appleyard Academy was Martindale Hall; a romanticized Georgian replica built in the middle of nowhere for bachelor/pastoralist, Edmund Bowman Jr. who had, in fact, order its construction to satisfy the whims of a young lady he had been squiring, but who later refused to move from her native England to Mintaro, South Australia to marry him in 1880. “The most romantic part of the story is that he lost it all in a card game,” Helen Morose mused. In actuality, staggering debt brought on by drought, forced the family Bowman to liquidate many of their assets by 1882 – the manor, briefly sold to another prominent family; later, to be turned into an art gallery. Today, Martindale Hall and its 47 acres are managed by the Australian government as a tourist attraction, rented out for weddings and other social gatherings.  

“It was ideal,” Weir pointed out, “Tucked away and isolated, magnifying the girl’s repression as well as amplifying the animosity aimed at their headmistress.” Rachel Roberts, cast as this emblematic figurehead of an all-girl’s academy initially balked at performing in front of her pupils. “I can feel their hatred,” she nervously told Weir. Roberts also initially refused to wear the bouffant-styled wig as it had been designed with another actress in mind who had to withdraw at the last minute due to ill health. “In the theater it’s considered bad luck to wear another actress’ wig,” Roberts pertly told Weir. However, when Weir pointed out they were not in a theater, but making a movie, Roberts reconsidered her stance, enough for her to perform her scenes as required – with the wig – and without further delays or concessions made.
Since the publication of Lindsay’s novel and the subsequent making of the motion picture based on it, Hanging Rock (formally Mount Diogenes) has acquired a reputation outside of Australia as a place of ill-omened supernatural mystery. There are, in fact, many formations in the rock to suggest ‘faces’ – man-made, or carved by the inhospitable hand of nature through time. Exactly how much of the landmark’s ‘spook’ reputation is warranted, as opposed to imagined after the fact, remains open to debates. “Watches did stop,” Helen Morose admits, “Perhaps there’s something magnetic – a magnetic field, I mean.” Indeed, Hal McElroy has suggested, “Equipment went missing, watches stopped…all of that…” furthering the opinion of the rock as a hallowed hotspot for the unexplained.  “First impressions are benign and deceiving…that it’s this sort of lumpy and unimpressive thing…but when you get closer, it’s a very scary place.” Counteracting these impressions is Anne Lambert. “I never found it frightening,” she has admitted, “We used to climb it as children. It’s steep and perhaps a dangerous place to play, but I’ve never been frightened there.”
In staging the picnic at the base of the rock, cinematographer, Russell Boyd was to discover a difficulty to set the shooting schedule behind by several days: only about an hour’s worth of properly filtered light could be used to effectively shoot the scene. Thus, the proposed one day eight hour shoot would have to be spread over eight days – one hour per – to accommodate, further augmented by Boyd’s decision to lens much of the scene through mesh; material purchased from a local wedding supplier; also, his wife’s nylon stockings, which Boyd cut and affixed to the front of the camera to add a diffused, almost ethereal quality to the close-ups. “They might have fired me on the spot,” Boyd would later reminisce, “I think I got a few sideways glances when I bought the material for the veil. I was probably the first bloke who had ever been in there.” Meanwhile, co-producer, Hal McElroy struggled for a way to authenticate the story for the audience. “We had to find a way of saying this is real without actually saying it was…because we really didn’t know for a fact that it was.” Ultimately, the decision was made to open the picture with a white lettering on black background prologue, reading ‘On Saturday 14th February, 1900, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon, several members disappeared without a trace.’ “What that said to the audience,” McElroy adds, “…is that this is a true story…and indeed, there are people even today who believe it to be such.”
The last bit of inspiration to touch the project was Weir’s insistence on hiring Martin Whitaker as a technical advisor. Possessing an almost encyclopedic recall of the novel, some would suggest ‘possessed’ by Lindsay’s writing, Whitaker immersed himself in the particulars of the piece – everything from set decoration to props – creating a lived-in look that evoked not only the period, but worked as a fully-enveloping atmosphere for the actors to explore on their own and help them find, establish and reshape their characters.  “Martin spoke his mind,” Hal McElroy has said, “But he brought to us that extra level of finesse, an artist’s sensibilities and an extraordinary attention to detail.” Just prior to Weir making his pilgrimage to Hanging Rock, he came into the McElroy’s offices with an inspired notion; having just heard the moody Romanian panpipes of Gheorgh Zamfir in a televised documentary. Plagued by other pressing issues surrounding the movie, the McElroys thought him mad. But Weir pressed the point. Alas, Zamfir – as he was professionally known – wanted nothing to do with the movies. He would not compose for film. Undaunted, Weir made certain the McElroys acquired the rights to the particular piece of music that had endeared itself to his own heart; the melody looped and repeated as the picture’s leitmotif throughout the story and effectively adding a disturbing depth to the enigma.
Picnic at Hanging Rock opens with a breathtakingly unsettling long-shot of the rock itself, slowly materializing from an ethereal, yet stubbornly sticky fog. From here, Weir momentarily retreats into a montage of images depicting life at Appleyard Academy; stolen moments of poetry recital, giddy and hushed whispers between friends, the pressing of a single soft-white petal rose into a press to preserve it for posterity, and, finally, our introduction to the lithe and pure of heart Miranda, lazily singing a song as her roommate, Sara (Margaret Nelson) looks on. Weir’s hint of a possible lesbian attraction between these two is compounded by the fact Mrs. Appleyard has already cryptically forbade Sara to attend the picnic. Throughout the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Appleyard will remain unnecessarily cruel toward Sara, ordering the willful girl to commit to her studies. It is Valentine’s Day, 1900. Immediately following breakfast, the rest of the girls prepare for their promised outing. Assigned as chaperones on their sojourn are spinsterish mathematics instructor, Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) and the beautiful French instructor, Mlle. de Poitiers, accompanied by coachman, Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan). 
Already near the rock are the Fitzhuberts; the affluent English Colonel (Peter Collingwood), his portly wife (Olga Dickie) and their teenage son, Michael – ushered into the wilderness by their rather saucy coachman, Albert Crundall (John Jarrett). Michael wanders off from his parents, discovering Albert already enjoying a bit of wine alone in the woods. At first, the two young men regard one another competitively. But gradually an unlikely friendship emerges; the boys finding they have a lot more in common than first meets the eye; Michael’s privileged childhood contrasted with Albert’s hard-knocks story of growing up dirt poor in an orphanage. Meanwhile, Miranda and her cohorts, including fellow pupils, Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), Rosamund (Ingrid Mason) and Edith (Christine Schuler) arrive at the rock, establishing their picnic area near its shadowy base. Gaining permission from Miss McCraw to go ‘exploring’, Miranda and her friends begin to wander through the tall grasses; Miranda catching Michael’s eye almost immediately. As he is a gentleman, he keeps his distance – quietly observing her balletic grace as she crosses a stream and disappears beyond the escarpment from which only the introverted and easily frightened Edith will eventually return.
What happened next is a matter left glaringly unresolved; Miranda, Rosamund, Marion, Irma and Edith climbing higher and higher into the rock to investigate its bizarrely formed crevices and dangerously steep precipices in the stifling noonday heat, despite Edith’s chronic complaints they return to the rest of the group. At some point, the girls elect to go on without Edith, her frantic cries to turn back unheeded until, quite suddenly, Miranda and the rest have simply vanish into thin air. With Edith’s tearful return to the picnic grounds, chaos ensues. Miss McCraw endeavors to search for the missing pupils and goes missing herself. As darkness falls, Mrs. Appleyard begins to suspect something is terribly wrong. When, at last, the coach arrives Appleyard questions Mr. Hussey. He relays the particulars of his exhaustive search for Miranda and her friends, but cannot quantify what has happened to them.  Const. Jones (Garry MacDonald) is brought in to fill out a report. Doc. McKenzie (Jack Fegan) puts to rest at least some of Mrs. Appleyard’s concerns. Edith has not been molested. Nevertheless, she is unresponsive to any and all queries put forth by Const. Jones, turning her head away when he inquires that a man might be involved. After some rest, Edith, accompanied by Mlle. de Poitiers, is taken back to the rock by Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), who manages to coax from her the rather salacious tidbit that she witnessed Miss McCraw climbing the rock without her skirt.
Michael becomes obsessed to learn the truth. Despite being questioned by police, and, exonerated of any wrong doing, he convinces Albert to return with him to the rock in search of the girls. Ordering Albert to remain behind, Michael leaves a trail of white paper squares affixed to the bare tree branches so Albert can follow the trajectory of his search should he fail to return to their prearranged destination. Indeed, in ascending to the hallowed and haunted place very near where Miranda and her friends went missing, Michael too suffers a near collapse and crippling hallucinations; rescued from his delusions by a panicked Albert, who carries him to relative safety. Also discovered at the scene by Albert is Irma, barely alive and greatly depleted, but otherwise lying intact in a cool crevice of the rock, her corset missing, but seemingly unharmed. Taken to the Fitzhubert home for an extended convalescence, Irma is attended to by the doctor, but, like Edith, remains quite unable to explain what has occurred – either to her or her friends. It is as though anyone nearing the rock’s point of no return has had their memories completely expunged.
Determined to learn all he can, Michael slowly gains Irma’s trust, but disaffects her growing affections for him when he frustratingly orders her to explain herself. Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard’s world begins to implode. Buffeted by rumors splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country; nothing more than speculation, resulting in a highly publicized scandal, the college’s enrollment plummets. Michael is stricken with reoccurring visions of Miranda. Greatly weakened by his ordeal on the rock, he is nonetheless disturbed by her haunted manifestations, yet unable to react to them in any way that would benefit his search for the truth. Newly recovered from her ordeal, Irma elects to bid farewell to her classmates before departing for an extended trip to Europe – a prolonged respite to fully recover her health. In one of the movie’s most shocking vignettes, these classmates now turn on Irma with a venomous resolve to force the truth from her. Mlle. de Poitiers intervenes. But as Irma flees, she notices Sara strapped to the wall by Mrs. Appleyard, a preemptive measure to correct her posture. Indeed, Appleyard has since become quite determined to make an example of this girl whose guardians have stopped patronizing the college.
That evening, Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child), who was also denied by Appleyard the right to partake in the picnic, confronts the headmistress in her study. Lumley will tolerate no more cruelties for the sake of keeping her job. Instead, she resigns. Appleyard, who has been nipping at the sherry, is practically incoherent and inconsolable. The next day, Appleyard tells Sara her guardians have stopped paying her tuition. Rather than endure any more of her headmistress’ physical and psychological abuse, Sara presumably commits suicide; her body found amongst the flowers in the hothouse by green’s man Mr. Whitehead (Frank Gunnell). Knowing something of the girl’s great unhappiness, Whitehead confronts Appleyard, who is going through the motions in full mourning regalia. Meanwhile, Michael has decided to go abroad. Albert confides he had a vision of his kid sister, Sara, whom he has not seen since their days together at the orphanage. She came to him in a vision, beckoning his understanding but almost as quickly departing into a very bright light from which even his pleas for her to remain a while longer would not be comforted. The movie concludes with a flashback to the picnic; Sgt. Bumpher’s strangely calming voiceover explaining how the body of Mrs. Appleyard was later discovered at the base of Hanging Rock; yet another shadowy death to compound the on-going, and likely never-to-be resolved mystery as to what really happened to Miss McCraw, Miranda and the others that fateful afternoon.
Picnic At Hanging Rock is an exquisite riddle and I suspect that is part of its divisive charm; Weir’s ability to spin a web of circumstances with no real denouement allowing for endless interpretation, but also discordant frustrations for those expecting just another neat-and-tidy cliffhanger. Firsts, in movies are usually met with mixed emotions and equally as conflicted success in review. The European critics of their time were understandably ecstatic in their near unanimous praise of Weir and the picture. Indeed, there is so much to admire herein; from the superb acting and immaculate period recreations, to Weir’s ability to shine a light on the inner mindset of these decidedly and thoroughly complex characters, who react not as characters drawn from the outlines of a screenplay, but as real people might, if faced with similarly perplexed situations. In North America, the picture went quietly unnoticed – or rather – virtually ignored, if not outright dismissed. We ought to pity ourselves such ignorance.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has been given a deluxe treatment from Criterion Home Video.  Criterion went through a brief spell of producing lavishly appointed packages for their Blu-ray releases that included not only DVD copies of the movie and extra features, but plenty of swag besides. I would have this time again, particularly as Criterion releases still rate a heftier price tag than most. Picnic gets a soft cover reprint of Joan Lindsay’s novel and a handsomely put together booklet featuring essays by Megan Abbott and Marek Haltof. This new hi-def transfer was supervised by Peter Weir from a 35 mm interpositive with considerable restoration to correct built-in flicker and chroma breathing. Overall, the 1.78:1 image looks fairly snappy, likely culled from the same elements as the British Second Sight Films release. Outdoor scenes reveal some astounding detail and clarity with exceptionally pleasing colors. Given the natural lighting conditions, grain is evident, but has been consistently rendered and homogenized without appearing scrubbed. 
Stabilization tools were employed to remove gate weave. The English 5.1audio sounds impressive, particularly Zamfir’s pan flute underscore. Dialogue is clean but unremarkably rendered. That is to say, it is in keeping with the way the movie likely sounded back in 1975, in the ole days before Dolby and hi-fidelity, but without distracting dropouts, pops, or any other distortions. Best of all are the extras: a brand new introduction from scholar, David Thomson; a ‘making of’ retrospective, reuniting a good many cast and crew, also, a fairly involved interview piece, starring Peter Weir. We get the 1975 documentary, ‘A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900’ and Homedale (1971); the award-winning black comedy by Weir that caused producer, Patricia Lindsay to first notice Weir’s potential as a great director. Last but not least, there is a trailer. Bottom line: Picnic at Hanging Rock is a weirdly disturbing cinematic tome to an otherworldly literary masterpiece. It ought to be required viewing. Perhaps, Criterion’s Blu-ray release will make this so. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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