Australia's film industry underwent a renaissance in the 1970s. Many of the films being made, though, were contemporary "Ocker" comedies such as The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (which introduced Edna Everage to the world) and Alvin Purple. Then in 1975, along came Picnic at Hanging Rock — Australia's first international hit, and its first classic period drama. And one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made.
The movie opens with the words: "On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock, near Mt Macedon in the State of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace ..." And that, essentially, is the story. About a dozen or so girls and two of their teachers from a very Victorian boarding school go on a day's outing in the bush, and return that night minus three of the girls and one of the teachers. One of the girls is found — almost unharmed — a week later, but has no recollection of the events of a week earlier. And we never do find out what happened to the other three.
Which makes this a very unusual film indeed — a mystery in which the mystery is never solved. But the mystery is not really what Picnic is about at all. There are many ways to read this film, but for me it's all about the absurdity of imposing English (and Victorian, in particular) mores and manners upon the rough new colonial world of Australia. The countryside is desolate, primitive and stark — yet all the women wear corsets, gloves, flowing dresses, hats; the men are in three-piece suits. There's a real sense of people out of place in their environment; they know they don't belong, but try to force their own sense of place upon the landscape. That's one interpretation; another is that it is a film about repressed sexuality (again harking back to Victorian times).
Picnic at Hanging Rock was Peter Weir's second feature (after 1974's The Cars That Ate Paris) and he was to go on to greater and greater heights: Gallipoli, Witness, Green Card, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander. But even this early in his career, you could see an amazing amount of talent shining through. With Picnic, Weir blazed a trail for the great Australian films that were to come. The score and photography, too, must come in for mention. Russell Boyd's sensual cinematography captures the stark beauty and quiet danger of the Australian bush, while the use of pan pipes still manages to send shivers down the spine. Picnic at Hanging Rock truly is a modern classic.
EXTRAS **** The first disc contains a new Director's Cut of the film (Weir has excised eight minutes); the second the original cut of the movie. The third disc has all the extra bits, the best of which is a feature-length 2004 documentary called A Dream Within A Dream, which hears from most of the cast and crew involved in the making of Picnic. There's also a 1975 doco (A Recollection — Hanging Rock 1900); an interview with Author Joan Lindsay; a tour of the principal locations; deleted scenes; a stills and poster gallery (accompanied by an excerpt from the novel, read by Helen Morse); and a short film called The Day of Saint Valentine, the first screen adaptation of the story, made in 1969. All that's missing, which would have made this a true 5-star extras package, is a commentary from Peter Weir.