The lantana bush,” reads a snippet from the press notes for the Australian psychological drama Lantana, “on its surface is a lovely plant, filled with exotic flowers. Beneath the beauty, however, hides a thick, thorny growth.” And thank you, Lions Gate Films publicity department, for erasing any confusion about the central metaphor.
Films that waste so little time turning their subtext into text tend to be crippled by such over-literalness, nudging viewers so relentlessly with thematic hints that they leave bruises. But Lantana recovers from its early heavy hand to provide a deft, sneaky touch. It’s the kind of richly textured character study that reminds you why character matters.
Adapted by Andrew Bovell from his own stage play Speaking in Tongues, Lantana follows a dozen intertwined lives in contemporary Sydney. Police detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia, a native Aussie) is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a woman in the salsa dancing class Leon is taking with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Sonja, meanwhile, is in therapy with psychiatrist Valerie (Barbara Hershey), whose own marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) flounders in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder two years earlier. Hovering around the fringes are Leon’s police partner Claudia (Leah Purcell), Jane’s estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins), her next door neighbors Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci), and a gay client of Valerie’s (Peter Phelps) who may have a unique connection to John.
It’s not easy for multi-character efforts like Lantana to do justice to their many story lines. Director Ray Lawrence, however, keeps the film moving so smoothly it’s almost impossible to believe he hasn’t made a feature in 15 years (since 1986’s Bliss). The personalities develop with impressive complexity, each sympathetic moment giving way to moments of selfishness and insecurity.
Give credit to the dynamic cast for the ways in which they bring those personalities to life, especially to Anthony LaPaglia. One of the least appreciated fine actors around—and already a winner of the Australian equivalent of the Academy Award for this film—LaPaglia gives the time-worn role of the emotionally closed-off cop a fresh look. He nails the intricacies of a man who loves his wife deeply while still feeling a void. More impressive still, he never turns Leon into a woe-is-me portrait of mid-life crisis. And he gets a great partner in Armstrong, who plays the tough but wounded Sonja with a lust for life that Leon seems incapable of recognizing. Blake, Rush and Phelps also do fine work, but not a single one of the cast members drops the ball.
Through those flawed, grasping characters, Bovell and Lawrence turn their film into a haunting study of the way communication can break down in marriages. As Leon takes his dissatisfactions to another woman and Sonja takes hers to a therapist, Lantana watches them dance around each other in a life that rarely admits time for a conversation. It also plays brilliantly with outside perceptions of what matters in a marriage. In a series of expertly played scenes, Jane makes assumptions about Nik and Paula’s life based on their financial struggles, oblivious to the fact that they may be the only people she knows who trust each other implicitly.
It is hard to avoid being occasionally distracted by Lantana’s multiple coincidences of plot. Leon ends up investigating the disappearance of another character, who turns out to be connected to yet another character. They run into each other in bars; they even expect coincidences where none exist. Like most plays turned into films, Lantana comes with that certain structural awkwardness involved in turning a work about ideas into something more visual.
But where a lot of films like it fail, this one works. Lantana refuses to make one grand statement about marriage, gathering the many ways they can succeed and fail into one intriguing package. It embraces the struggles of its characters. It offers a piercing look at marital collapses graced with a sense of hope for new beginnings. Ray Lawrence didn’t need his publicists to explain that hard and painful things lurk beneath the outward appearance of tranquility in so many marriages. His film itself does a splendid job of telling that tale.
Lantana, Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Lawrence, Rachael Blake. Rated R ***1/2.