Lantana
review by Dan Lybarger, 25 January 2002

With its metaphorical title, the multiple award-winning Lantana flirts with pretentiousness but thankfully falls short of this objective. Despite some sequences where writer Andrew Bovell (Strictly Ballroom) and director Ray Lawrence (the 1985 adaptation of Peter Carey's Bliss) initially appear to be aiming for cheap jolts, the two look at marital discord in a fresh and honest light. At first, some of the groping sequences seem silly and extraneous, but Bovell and Lawrence do have a higher purpose than flashing skin.

The bush that figures in the film's moniker dominates its opening shot. The flowers that come from the shrub make the screen look like a Better Homes and Gardens spread, but the loud, eerie buzz of insects hints that something more sinister is occurring. Soon we discover the body of an unidentified woman. 

Abruptly, the scene shifts to the ferocious coupling of Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and Jane (Rachael Blake). Both are married to other people. As far as Leon is concerned, the illicit relationship is more an act of desperation than passion. "This is not an affair," he later tells her. "It's a one-night stand that happened twice." While still pining for his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), he is uncomfortable talking with her. Depressed with the sudden approach of middle age, Leon takes up jogging and extramarital dalliances to give himself a feeling of vitality he hasn't had in years. Both wind up leading to more frustration and chest pains. His ennui has rubbed off on Sonja who takes her issues to Valerie (Barbara Hershey), her therapist.

Like most shrinks, Valerie has issues of her own. The unsolved death of her daughter has inspired her to write a best-selling book that has won her acclaim but alienated her husband John (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush). The two exchange perfunctory courtesies but have reached the point where they don't take the same vehicles to work even when their schedules don't conflict. Aggravating her feelings of abandonment is the fact that one of her patients is a gay man who continually boasts of an affair he's having with a married fellow who sounds a lot like John. 

Throughout Lantana all of these folks come into contact with each other in odd, almost peripheral ways. Leon is a detective and on his cases, he winds up inadvertently crossing paths with Jane's husband (Glenn Robbins) and her neighbors Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci). The blue-collar couple have unspoken problems of their own because Nik is terminally bored staying home with their kids because, unlike his wife Paula, he's unable to find work. The connection between these folks and the film's opening revelations doesn't play like a conventional whodunit. The incident that leads to the pivotal death occurs well into the movie, and Bovell, adapting his play Speaking in Tongues, is clearly more interested in examining his characters' hang-ups than in establishing the identity of a victim or killer.

Thanks to some fine work from LaPaglia, this turns out to be a wise approach. As with his turn in Bulletproof Heart, LaPaglia excels at playing men whose cold exteriors hide desperate, seemingly futile longings. Because he's played Americans so often, it's somewhat jarring to hear him use his native accent, but Lantana allows him to demonstrate some chops he hasn't had the opportunity to use in ages. Similarly, Armstrong also does a fine job of wincing with unspoken torment. While the rest of the cast is solid, Rush is disappointing as John. Rush seems more at home playing extroverts like the Marquis de Sade (in Quills) and the bumbling producer he played( in Shakespeare in Love) than he does at playing quiet, tormented unfortunates. In Lantana, Rush seems excessively mannered and appears to be itching to step into the spotlight.

Even though Bovell and Lawrence are working from a play, Lantana reveals more information through its visuals than through the dialogue. LaPaglia's face seethes with discontent as the camera reveals that Leon has met Jane at a dance class he and Sonja are taking, and that Sonja likes the course a lot more than he does. At times, the people in Lantana seem a little too joyless to be likeable, but because Bovell and Lawrence use subtle sequences like the ones in the dance courses, these encounters are at least intriguing. It's also refreshing to see a theatrical adaptation that doesn't look stiff or sound verbose (think of the movie version of David Mamet's American Buffalo).   In many ways the finest moment in Lantana is the closing montage. Lawrence flashes to snippets of all the characters' fates and settles on a final shot of a couple dancing. The two are moving gracefully but can't bring themselves to make eye contact. This ending isn't neat or comfortable, but it makes the stories that preceded it more compelling and believable.

Directed by:
Ray Lawrence

Starring:
Anthony LaPaglia
Geoffrey Rush
Barbara Hershey
Kerry Armstrong
Rachael Blake
Vince Colosimo
Russell Dykstra
Daniella Farinacci
Peter Phelps
Leah Purcell
Glenn Robbins
Nicholas Cooper
Marc Dwyer
Keira Wingate
Melissa Martinez
Lani John Tupu

Written by:
Andrew Bovell

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 not admitted without parent or adult
guardian.

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