Love is the greatest mystery.
Lantana: a noxious and troublesome weed with dense and spiky undergrowth, sometimes cultivated for its colorful, aromatic flowers (from the official website).
Like the plant whose name it bears, the film Lantana is a thicket: lovely and sweet-smelling on its surface, dense and thorny beneath. It is a murder mystery that isn't really a murder mystery about people whose lives are not always what they appear to be from the outset. Lantana's delicately layered storyline uncovers, or at least reminds us of, three essential truths about human existence:
1. No one is exactly what he or she seems.
Facts of the Case
Sydney detective sergeant Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia, Summer of Sam, The Salton Sea) finds himself at that curious crossroads of middle age. He shares a typical life with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong, perhaps best known to American audiences from the telefilm remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), but is trysting in secret with Jane (Rachael Blake, Moe Howard's wife in the TV biopic The Three Stooges), a fellow student in the Latin dance class the Zats attend.
Leon's police partner Claudia (Leah Purcell) thinks he's insane for risking a good marriage, which she envies. She's a single woman who fantasizes about a man who eats dinner at the same restaurant she frequents, but to whom she's never found the courage to speak. Similarly, the recently separated Jane spends her days jealously observing the storybook romance of the couple who live next door, Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo, Daniella Farinacci), madly in love despite their meager circumstances: Nik is chronically unemployed, while Paula works overtime as a nurse to support Nik and their three small children.
For her own part, Sonja Zat airs her suspicions of Leon's infidelity to psychologist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey, the lone Yank in this Australian production). Valerie, like Sonja, suspects her own husband, law school dean John Knox (Geoffrey Rush, The Tailor Of Panama, Quills) of adultery, perhaps with one of her clients (Peter Phelps), a homosexual who acknowledges an affair with a married man. John and Valerie's relationship has been strained since the murder of their young daughter, and since the publication of Valerie's popular book about their tragic experience.
These disparate lives all intersect when one of the women goes missing. Leon and Claudia catch the case and, beginning with evidence revealed by one of the characters, come to regard several of the others as suspects in the disappearance. The investigation serves as a backdrop against which the inner lives of these ordinary people are exposed—to the audience, to each other, and to themselves.
Most ardent cineastes are familiar with the principle of "six degrees of separation," popularized both by the play and film of that title, and by the Internet game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Lantana boils this principle down to its essence: all human lives are connected—by a relative handful of linkages—to all others, often in unsuspected and unforeseeable ways. In Lantana, people from different strata of urban Australian life—wealthy Valerie and John, the middle-class Zats, working-class Jane and her estranged husband Pete, and the struggling Nik and Paula—are brought into proximity by a chain of seemingly unrelated situations.
Running parallel to the theme of human entanglement is that of suspicion, and the inherent dangers of it. Valerie believes John may be gay because their sex life has dwindled into myth since their daughter's death. She believes Patrick, her gay client, may be John's lover because she knows Patrick is seeing a married man. But does either conclusion follow? Is repressed homosexuality the only reason a couple might experience sexual and emotional alienation? Might not the cruel loss of a child—and the couple's starkly incompatible ways of managing the loss, and the conflicts resulting therefrom—have something to do with it? Is John the only married man in greater Sydney who could be Patrick's lover? Valerie is blinded by her presumptions to the true answers to any of these questions. And in Valerie we see ourselves: how often do we sense unseen menace skulking under every rock, not because it is there, but merely because we fear it might be?
Similar challenges apply to the other characters in Lantana. Does Leon's infidelity mean he no longer loves his wife? Sonja thinks it does. Does his affair with Jane mean he's prepared to leave Sonja for her? Jane thinks it does. If Nik has coffee with Jane while Paula's at work, does it mean Paula can't trust him—or Jane? She may find that she really needs to be able to trust them both. Does a furtive act witnessed through a window in the late night hours mean the person committing the act is guilty of a crime? It may appear so. But then, appearances sometimes deceive, just as the enticing flowers of the lantana plant mask its cruel underbrush.
The relationships that wind together—and apart—during the film illustrate the isolation of emotion many feel in modern society. Leon and Pete—neither knowing whom the other is, or of their common connection to Jane—have a landmark conversation in the men's room of a bar. Leon describes an incident, seen early in the film, where he collides with another man while out jogging. Although not seriously injured, the other man bursts into tears, and Leon embraces him as he weeps. In retrospect, Leon derides the unlucky pedestrian as "weak." "Don't you want to cry sometimes?" Pete asks Leon. "Yeah. But you don't, do you?" is Leon's reply.
Sonja tells Valerie it's not so much that her husband may be sleeping with another woman that bothers her, but that he wouldn't feel he could talk with her about it. If only Leon and Sonja talked about their needs, neither of them would be looking elsewhere for fulfillment. If only Valerie and John talked about the anguish each of them harbors over their daughter's loss, the chasm between them could be bridged. If only lonely Claudia would take a chance and introduce herself to the mystery man at the restaurant, she might find that he's interested in her too. All the "if-onlys" cast a dreary pall over the lives of these people, a pall as sultry as an Australian January night. And the dreariest of all is this: if only everyone communicated honestly with one another, no one need ever assume—wrongly—what's really going on. Silence, Lantana shows us, is the greatest betrayal.
Before Lantana, director Ray Lawrence had not directed a film in the 15 years since his debut effort, Bliss. His sophomore venture is so marvelously conceived, so self-assured, so certain about its themes and characters, that one can't help but wonder what kept Lawrence from behind the lens for so long. His deft, deliberate approach to Andrew Bovell's script (adapted from Bovell's play, Speaking in Tongues) rarely steps wrong, but also rarely feels stagy or mannered. We not only forget that the film more or less abandons the veneer of its murder mystery plot (the mystery gets resolved, but it's just a convenient device for the development of these characters and issues), but we forgive it entirely because we are mesmerized and goaded by Lawrence and Bovell's deeper themes. Behind the stark, almost documentary-style photography lurks a mirror into the audience members' own dimly realized lives.
The cast of Lantana is nothing short of excellent. I've seen Anthony LaPaglia in numerous projects over the years—most notably during the second season of Steven Bochco's law-firm drama series Murder One—but I'd never have imagined him being capable of the subtle yet powerful work he turns in here. Geoffrey Rush, whom I found brilliantly understated in The Tailor of Panama, is every bit as good here, playing a man shredded inside who's expended every ounce of his soul keeping up his stoic façade. But the performances that lend the film its richness come from the female players, particularly Kerry Armstrong as a woman feeling the quiet sanctity of her life ebbing away, and Rachael Blake as a sad, desperate woman who wants what we all want—someone who will love her and thereby reinforce her fragile self-worth. Barbara Hershey's therapist, the hub around which the film circles, is solidly portrayed—Hershey hasn't had a part this meaty since 1987's Shy People, another deeply affecting film about relationships. The rest of the ensemble cast all offer nicely shaded characterizations. Leah Purcell, as Leon's partner, adds some especially fine touches to a minor role.
Lions Gate brings this Australian production to DVD in the U.S. by way of a quality anamorphic transfer. The image is clean and sharp for the most part, with only random flaws from the source print—some graininess, a few flyspecks—cropping up here and there. Colors look authentic and fresh, though the darker scenes tend to be a trifle too dark. Overall, this is a good-looking film that looks good on this disc.
The soundtrack is unremarkable, but, given the dialogue-driven nature of the film, audio pyrotechnics are neither expected nor necessary. The track is solidly anchored front and center, with very little action in the surrounds except in brief snatches. The dialogue comes through clearly throughout. In a couple of music-laden sequences at the dance studio and at a nightclub, the gain is kicked up almost beyond the point of accurate balance, but that's about the only truly dissonant note.
A 24-minute featurette entitled "The Nature of Lantana" serves as the primary DVD supplement. Mostly stitched together from interview clips shot on the set during filming, this documentary offers some interesting observations from the cast, director, screenwriter, and producer. Unfortunately, the audio track for the short film is miserable. The interviews were recorded using clip-on microphones amid significant levels of background commotion, and consequently are difficult to hear at times. I appreciate that the featurette director was trying to capture a sense of immediacy, but recording the interviews in a studio with equipment better suited to the task would have been far more effective.
The film's theatrical trailer and three bonus spots for other Lions Gate DVD releases (Monster's Ball, Perfume, and American Psycho 2 are the only other added content. (Memo to Lions Gate Marketing Dept. in regards the Perfume trailer: the word "cutthroat" contains two "t's," and Mariel Hemingway's surname has only one "m." If you need an editor, I work cheap.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Amazon's technical specifications claim there's a commentary track on this disc. I'll be a kangaroo's uncle if I can find one.
I pondered during the end credits, trying to recall some previous film to which I could compare Lantana. The closest parallel I could reach was another Australian picture centered around a mystery, the solution of which isn't, when all is said and done, the real point: Picnic at Hanging Rock. A more recent comparison, though a markedly different sort of movie (and a less satisfying one), is Unbreakable, with its scenes of disaffection between husband Bruce Willis and wife Robin Wright Penn.
Lantana is not really like either of these pictures, but it stirred—in this reviewer at least—similar emotional responses. This is a haunting, thought-provoking film that will compel you to take a fresh look at your own interactions, not just with the important people in your life, but with everyone around you. It is beautifully written and acted, with a knockout cast. Only the sparse extras should give any adult drama aficionado pause about picking up Lantana for repeated viewing. Watch it with someone you love. Talk about it with her or him afterward.
Guilty only of being one of the best films of 2001, in the Court's opinion. Lantana and all parties associated with it are free to go. We're adjourned…but be careful of those flowery shrubs on your way out.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "The Nature of Lantana"
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