Ten characters facing a variety of personal crises are caught up in a police investigation in "Lantana," a wonderfully acted, acutely observed psychological drama. Given supportive reviews and a campaign that emphasizes the fine performances, pic should perform solidly in arthouse venues Down Under.
Ten characters facing a variety of personal crises are caught up in a police investigation in “Lantana,” a wonderfully acted, acutely observed psychological drama. Given supportive reviews and a campaign that emphasizes the fine performances, pic should perform solidly in arthouse venues Down Under. Launching pic as opening attraction at the Sydney film fest four months prior to its October launch in Oz was a gamble, and positive word of mouth will be vital. Internationally, pic should use a prominent fest berth to focus critical and industry awareness on the road to specialized release.
Screenwriter Andrew Bovell, who has transformed and expanded his play “Speaking in Tongues” into a complex, densely intelligent screenplay, makes few concessions to audiences. In his dissection of several faltering relationships, Bovell is confronting unpleasant truths from which the upscale audiences at which pic is aimed may at times flinch. Though the film concludes on a cautiously upbeat note, the Euro-style concern with human foibles makes this a fairly demanding experience.
Bovell’s impressive work has been rigorously transferred to the screen by director Ray Lawrence, making only his second feature; his first was the Cannes entry “Bliss” 16 years ago. An Australian TV commercials director, Lawrence is almost unique among alumni of the commercials school in that his two features have been distinguished by their sober approach to literary subjects and by remarkable performances. New film opens with the camera gliding into a dense growth of lantana, a noxious, spiky weed that infests rural areas of Australia, to reveal a woman’s body in the undergrowth. It’s impossible to identify the corpse, so as the story unfolds, the viewer is wondering which of the principal female characters may wind up dead.
Psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) is still grieving over the murder, two years earlier, of her 11-year-old daughter, whose body was found in a Sydney alley. As a result, her marriage to her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), who heads a university faculty, is under severe strain, and she privately suspects that John is unfaithful to her. She even speculates he may be involved with her patient Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), a smug, quietly arrogant gay who, in their sessions, almost taunts her with details about his married lover.
Another of Valerie’s patients is Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong), the wife of Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), a cop. Sonja tells Valerie that she suspects Leon is unfaithful to her. In fact, Sonja’s intuition is right: Leon, who has been undergoing a mid-life crisis, has embarked on a furtive fling with Jane (Rachael Blake), a woman he met at a salsa dance class. Jane is separated from Pete (Glenn Robbins), her unhappy husband, and is temporarily living alone. Jane’s next-door neighbors are the unemployed Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his hard-working wife, Paula (Daniela Farinacci), a nurse. Nik looks after their three children while Paula is at work. All these characters are, in differing ways, unhappy and frustrated.When, at just past the film’s mid-point, one of the female characters goes missing, the tensions boil to the surface. But “Lantana” isn’t primarily a thriller, and audiences expecting a neatly packaged whodunit will be disappointed. Bovell and Lawrence instead invite the viewer’s complicity in a probing examination into the characters and psyches of these very realistically depicted characters, and on that level the pic ultimately succeeds.
It’s a film in which seemingly unimportant details assume great importance, and an unusual level of realism is achieved both in writing and performance. A scene in which Leon, while jogging near his home, violently collides with another jogger, is of no direct importance to the plot (though the stranger proves later to have a connection with another character in the story), but it helps to underline Leon’s instability. Similarly, when Valerie unjustly accuses a stranger (who happens to be Pete) of talking to her in the street and vents her anger on the startled man, it’s something of a shock. Connections like these, between characters who are unaware they’re linked in other ways, add to the film’s multilayered pleasures. LaPaglia gives one of his finest performances as the desperately unhappy cop, while Armstrong is agonizingly good as his betrayed wife. Equally fine is Blake as the woman with whom Leon seeks temporary release, an act which triggers unexpected results. Hershey offers a subtle, truthful performance as the obsessed Valerie, while Rush’s John is barely able to suppress the pain and grieving he feels over his daughter’s death, but bottles it all up inside. Phelps is particularly impressive as the tormenting Patrick, Colosimo and Farinacci score as the apparently happily married couple, and Leah Purcell subtly con veys the watchful repression of her sidekick character. Also notable are Nicholas Cooper and Marc Dwyer, who play the young sons of Leon and Sonja, very aware youngsters who handle the tension at home in totally different ways.
Mandy Walker’s precisely framed widescreen photography gives this intimate story of emotionally bruised and battered people an expansive feel, and music is sparingly, but aptly, utilized. Producer Jan Chapman’s quality control pervades the film, which is strong in every technical department.