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Sherlock’s Classics: Film Review – Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

MML

Gripping story of a group of schoolgirls in rural Victoria who go on an excursion to picnic at nearby Hanging Rock on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, but not all were to return.

Peter Weir’s faithfully adapted 1975 film version of Joan Lindsay’s page-turning 1967 bestseller of the same name unleashes with a haunting and hypnotic eruptive energy and unsettling provocative and surrealistic ambiguity unlike anything before or since in Australian cinema.

Neither author Joan Lindsay or the filmmakers have confirmed or denied the reality of events, and as a result divided audiences and critics with an unprecedented force, and in doing so helped cement the birth of Australian New Wave cinema.

Until ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ early ’70’s Australian cinema consisted mainly of such popular and uninhibited comic fare of the period as ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie,’ ‘Barry McKenzie Holds His Own,’ ‘Stork,’ ‘Alvin Purple,’ ‘Alvin Rides Again,’ ‘Libido,’ ‘Number 96’ and ‘The Box’ to name a few.

Among these U.K. filmmaker Nicolas Roeg with ‘Walkabout’ in 1971 and U.S. director Ted Kotcheff with ‘Wake in Fright’ the same year would a scorching vision of Australia be so tautly depicted through searing outback intensity and brutality, and subsequently quickly disappear into obscurity.

Executive Producer Patricia Lovell picked up Joan Lindsay’s book at a news-stand in 1971, read it in one sitting, and following three years of extraordinary determination and gut instinct, all the right elements fell into place at exactly the right time and the dye was set.

The supremely and sensitively crafted screenplay by Cliff Green, spellbinding cinematography by Russell Boyd and fiercely respectful and sensuous direction by Peter Weir went on to create a richly refined, multi-cultural, multi-layered tapestry of the conflict of youth, love, sexuality, tragedy and loss, told through the dark and brooding reflection of an ancient prophetic symbol of early Australian mythology.

The impeccable cast includes veteran British Oscar nominated actress Rachel Roberts and youthful British co-star of ‘The Go-Between’ Dominic Guard, along with Anne-Louise Lambert, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver, Vivean Gray, Karen Robson, Jane Vallis, Christine Schuler, Margaret Nelson and John Jarrett.

Rachel Roberts as the English Governess gives a striking performance of unbalanced intensity as the strict and tormented disciplinarian head of the girls school, and like the school itself, a larger than life turn-of-the century European figure out of place in its rural location and with a life all of its own.

The girls of Appleyard College each have an ethereal individuality all of their own, most notably Anne-Louise Lambert as the hypnotic and other worldly Miranda, all told, a stellar combination of unequalled breathtaking emotion and sensuality.

And then there’s Hanging Rock itself, a giant foreboding volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere that is as beautiful and inviting as it is deceptively innocent, surrounded with the evocatively etched faces of indigenous guards like ancient keepers watching over hallowed ground.              

Add to this the haunting Pan Pipes of Gheorghe Zamfir, and spine-tingling additional score by Bruce Smeaton, and you have a poetic, uniquely atmospheric, ambiguous, chilling, unforgettable and intellectually thought provoking Australian original.

Four years before Australia’s post apocalyptic warrior ‘Mad Max’ in 1979 exploded across the international stage, and giving rise to sensational new talents in director George Miller and future superstar Mel Gibson, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ would firmly cement the future of the tremendously talented Peter Weir as a filmmaking force.

It would put Australia firmly on the global filmmaking stage and restore credibility to the industry, though troubled times were still ahead, and in the subsequent years it would become a local and international cultural phenomenon.

A special mention and dedication must go to the late Executive Producer Patricia Lovell for her foresight, passionate drive and unbelievable tenacity, it’s now hard to imagine Australian cinema without ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ and with the thought that had she not walked by that news-stand in 1971, how things would be quite different.

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is a beautifully engrossing psychological mystery masterpiece, a milestone of Australian storytelling and cinema the likes of which we will never see or experience again.

And as for the mystery itself, you’ll have to figure that out on your own.

Stars: *****

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Umbrella Entertainment with spectacular and truly breathtaking restored picture and sound.                        

The Outstanding DVD and Blu-Ray Special Features include:

  • ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ A 2 Hour Documentary on the Making of the Film.       
  • ‘A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900’ – A 1975 On-Set Documentary.         
  • Joan Lindsay interview.    
  • Short Recollections – Audio interviews with Dominic Guard and Karen Robson.     
  • ‘Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall: Then and Now.’  
  • Trailer Collection.   
  • Still and Poster Gallery.      
  • ‘The Day of Saint Valentine’ 1969 Short Film.

Go to www.umbrellaent.com.au for more details.

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