Skip to main content

Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.


Picnic at Hanging Rock: Director’s Cut
(1975/1998)

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS My sympathies lie squarely with those who feel Peter Weir shouldn’t have gone and meddled with his film (removing eight minutes). Some of these individuals are actors and production crew interviewed on the feature-length making of documentary included on the Blu ray/DVD. Michael Mann is the biggest culprit in this inability to leave well alone (and then there’s George Lucas… ). Weir at least claims he’d wanted to edit out sequences that didn’t work so well since its original release outside of Australia. I can understand his reasoning, in particular with the excised scenes between Irma and Michael and their loss didn’t diminish my appreciation of the film as a whole; possibly their loss even had the desired effect.

It’s one of those horror films, like The Wicker Man, that you’re slightly shy of defining within that genre; so few of its scenes or elements are designed to frighten in a classical sense. This is a horror film by dint of what you don’t see and don’t know, the atmosphere created by that absence and the effect it has on the characters involved. As with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, there is a sense of the supernatural infringing upon the everyday but this is a force evoked by the feelings of the principals rather than anything tangible. Also, unlike many horror films, the motivating event happens in the first third, in broad daylight, and the rest of the film plays out on the responses to this.

The audience and the characters share bewilderment at what has transpired, ever more so when one of the four missing characters (three schoolgirls and Mrs Mangel from Neighbours) is returned. It’s easy to see why the tale has retained the aura of “true story” long after it was established that it was not the case, because there is something very uncalculated about its ambiguity. Any number of explanations is possible, and characters voice many of these, but the power of the film is its pervasive resistance to a fully-formed, rational answer.

Mention of Roeg beckons a comparison between Hanging Rock and the earlier Walkabout. Both films dwell on the disturbing clash between the repressed (English colonial) feminine and untamable, pagan forces of nature as represented by the Aborigines and the Outback. There is an accompanying fractured approach to time and perspective. But Rock is more overtly mystical. It directly invites the horror film interpretation that something potent, powerful and primordial happened to these girls. The helicopter shot of Edith fleeing the three girls, who have just disappeared into the rocks, her screams augmented by Bruce Smeaton’s eerie use of melatron, is chilling. Later, the experience of Michael on the rock is revealed to have been nerve-shattering (and curiously ritualised by his marking a way to guide himself back from wherever he must go to find the girl).

But, perhaps the explanation is altogether mundane; Edith’s fevered imaginings as the girls leave her behind, the missing parties succumbing to accident or foul play (at points both Michael and Albert invite suspicion, even if it does not linger), the possibility of sexual indiscretion or transgression (it is revealed that Irma was not wearing her corset when she was discovered). But then, the peculiar disappearance of Mrs Mangel, sorry Miss McGraw, also in a state of discarded apparel flicks the register back to the mystical.

Certainly, the events following the disappearance on the Rock show characters haunted by the loss of the girls. Or, more particularly, the loss of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) who has been repeatedly remarked upon, or obsessed over, for her beauty and grace; Weir continues to remind us that she holds more of symbolic, archetypal role, Botticelli’s Venus (or an angel), than that of a fully-formed character. The toll is particularly exacting on Sara (Margaret Nelson) and the tyrannical headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts; superb, although reportedly little acting was required to put the fear of God into the cast and crew), while Michael is haunted by visions of her. It’s an aspect that, again, puts one in mind of Don’t Look Now; individuals struggling to cope with the fall-out of an event that sends one’s world reeling.

As I said, I can understand Weir’s rejection of the scenes between Michael and Irma; there’s something more powerful about the lack of head-on interrogation of either their experiences in the Director’s Cut. And it makes the scene where the other girls round on Irma, who has come to say goodbye, all the more chilling. I like also how the fate of Sara, tying into the revelation of her relationship with Albert, is highlighted, and the sense that this scene qualifies as support of the film’s more mystical themes.

I had not been aware of the original ending of Joan Lindsay’s novel, upon which the film is based. It was excised by the publisher and eventually saw light of day several year’s after Lindsay’s death. Reading the synopsis of “Chapter Eighteen” it came to mind that the sequence wouldn’t have been too out of place in a novel of Alan Garner’s devising. The ideas also further emphasise the theme mentioned earlier of the discord between British and Aboriginal systems and values. But, while the events of the chapter felt consistent with the possibilities raised by the film, that’s in no way to suggest that attempting to render them (even if the filmmakers had known about the ending) would have worked.  The power of Picnic at Hanging Rock lies in its being so close to an explanation one can grasp but paradoxically so far from one at the same time.

*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c