Lantana


          For those unfamiliar with the flora of Australia, the lantana bush
  features beautiful, exotic-looking blooms but underneath is a thicket of
  thorny growth. It proves an apt metaphor for the screen version of Andrew
  Bovell's stage drama Speaking in Tongues, which detailed the relationship
  troubles of several couples. On stage, the numerous roles were divided
  between four actors, a highly theatrical device that obviously wouldn't work
  on film. Instead, in adapting his play into a feature, Bovell retained the
  core of the tale but reinvented and re-imagined the whole, adding and
  subtracting characters as well as changing the genders of others. Under
  the powerful direction of Ray Lawrence and with an expert cast,
LANTANA
  became a terrific, adult drama, winner of seven Australian Film Institute
  Awards (including Best Picture) and one of the best films released in the
  USA in 2001.

          Lawrence, whose only other movie was 1985's controversial and
  rewarding
BLISS adapted from Peter Carey's novel, may have spent most
  of the last sixteen years making commercials, but unlike his counterparts
  in America and England, he doesn't fall back on showy techniques. Fully
  confident with the material and his extraordinary cast, Lawrence allows
  the story to take prominence. That's not to say that
LANTANA is not
  visually interesting. It opens with a neat set piece, recalling somewhat
  the first sequence in both Blue Velvet and The Crimson Rivers: the camera
  slowly pans over a dead body entwined in the thorns of a lantana bush,
  Her identity remains a secret, but it becomes clear that one of the females
  in the cast is headed to a bad end. There are several possibilities. Could
  it be the unhappy housewife Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong) or the recently
  separated, sexually promiscuous Jane (Rachael Blake) or the tightly-wound
  psychiatrist Valerie Sommers (Barbara Hershey) or the rookie cop Claudia
  (Leah Purcell) or the earthy Paula (Daniela Farinacci)?

          From that intriguing opening, the audience then first hears then
  sees a couple engaging in vigorous sexual intercourse. In a sparse,
  economically-written follow-up scene, Bovell establishes they are illicit
  lovers when the woman (the aforementioned Jane) says she's lost an
  earring, one that her husband gave her. Her partner in crime is, ironically,
  police detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), who is facing a mid-life crisis
  and cheating on his wife Sonja. Bovell and Lawrence create a world that
  is rife with coincidences; Leon and Sonja are taking dance lessons and
  among their classmates is -- Jane.

          Then there is Valerie whose milquetoast academic husband John
  (Geoffrey Rush) has become remote following the murder of their only
  child. Again, in a few short scenes, Bovell conveys the emotional toll of
  that event on the couples' lives. To cope, Valerie has written a best-selling
  book while John appears to have thrown himself into his work. At least
  that's what Valerie thought until one of her patients -- a gay man named
  Patrick (Peter Phelps) -- details his relationship with a married man. Before
  long, Valerie is convinced Patrick is cheating with her husband.

          Gradually, the lives of these couples -- as well as Jane's neighbors,
  the unemployed Nik (Vince Colosimo) and nurse Paula -- will intertwine in
  a thicket of mistrust, misperception, misunderstanding and misdirection.
  Bovell's script and Lawrence's direction have left room for the actors
  to inhabit fully these characters, and there isn't a false note among them.
  (They've also added little throwaway details that are easily overlooked,
  like the fact that the Zat home is undergoing renovations, just as their
  marriage is.) The note-perfect cast is anchored by Anthony LaPaglia,
  who I have to confess has always been a favorite of mine. As Leon,
  LaPaglia has one of his richest roles and makes the man's personal crisis
  palpable. While mostly a character actor, he can be a strong leading
  player (as
BULLETPROOF HEART proved) and it's a joy to watch him
  limn such a complex character. Watch him in the scene where he
  contemplates playing a tape of his wife's therapy session and then
  when he goes ahead and listens as she confesses she suspects him of
  cheating. It's painful, honest and heartbreaking work. Kerry Armstrong,
  mostly known for her work on Australian television, is terrific as his
  confused wife Sonja. Rachael Blake is equally good as the sexy Jane.
  Vince Colosimo delivers a strongly emotional turn as a man whose
  efforts are misconstrued. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Geoffrey Rush,
  who isn't always known for his subtlety. Here, he perfectly underplays
  a man tormented by grief but unable to express it. As his wife and the
  only non-Australian in the film, the luminous Barbara Hershey delivers
  a forceful turn as a woman coming unglued.

          Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of the film proves a little
  underwhelming, but that small flaw doesn't really undercut the beauty
  and power of the film. Lawrence and Bovell are more interested in
  exploring how people in relationships maintain them and
LANTANA shows
  that a placid and pretty surface can hide thorny issues. Perhaps their
  conceit is best summed up in an exchange between Valerie and Patrick,
  when she asks him, "Is love a contest?" And he replies, "Sometimes."
  When you have as worthy a group of performers as this film does, it
  becomes a contest worth watching.

                          Rating:                A
                          MPAA Rating:        R
                          Running time:       121 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.