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