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Thorny Issues



Ray Lawrence, Germany / Australia, 2001

Rating: 3.6



Posted: March 3, 2002

By Laurence Station

Adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues, director Ray Lawrence's Lantana examines the lives of four couples in and around Sydney, Australia, over the course of a few weeks. First we have police detective Leon Zat (an effective Anthony LaPaglia) and his long-suffering wife Sonja (marvelously handled by Kerry Armstrong). Sonja's therapist, Valerie Somers (an appropriately emotive Barbara Hershey), is a psychiatrist who's written a book dealing with her daughter's murder. Valerie's husband, John Knox (a bedrock-solid Geoffrey Rush), is a detached academic. Jane O'May (nicely underplayed by Rachael Blake) is estranged from her husband Pete (Glenn L. Robbins), a sad sack who's desperate for reconciliation. And then there are Jane's next-door neighbors, the D'Amato's: Paula (a spirited Daniela Farinacci) and Nik (Vince Colosimo), a tight-knit, if cash-strapped, couple.

Lawrence's inter-cutting between socio-economic boundaries recalls Robert Altman's 1993 masterpiece Short Cuts, but Lantana is far more plot-driven and much less subtle in its execution. Themes of infidelity, lies, the mysteries and vagaries of love all intertwine as the four couples play out their personal wants and needs in the course of discovering the truth about what's happened to Valerie after she mysteriously vanishes one night. Valerie's disappearance touches off more than a missing person's inquest, causing long-simmering tensions to boil over and devastating secrets to come to light. While investigating the case, Leon uncovers confidential taped conversations of Sonja's discussing the couple's rocky marriage and her fear that Leon might be having an affair. John, Valerie's husband, seems less than broken up about her absence and quickly becomes the prime suspect. Meanwhile, Jane witnesses Nik arriving home late one night and tossing what looks like a woman's high heeled shoe into the lantana bushes across the street.

Plot convolutions are liberally piled one on top of the other, with accusations ranging from vindictive gay lovers to whether or not the unemployed, but model father, Nik is actually a cold-blooded killer.

Mystery aside, at its heart Lantana is about marital trust. Should a husband tell his wife everything, regardless of how much it might hurt her, or is it better to keep some things secret? Lawrence proves effective at exploring this emotionally complex issue.

Lantana's tone, acting and dialogue are all smartly realistic, and Sydney's burgeoning growth butting up against the wild plant life around it forms an effective framing device for the oft-thorny situations the film's characters are faced with. Likewise, Mandy Walker's cinematography brings the tropical vibrancy of greater Sydney to life and the score by composer Paul Kelly is evenhanded and appropriate to the somber gravity of the subject matter.

The film's great failing lies in its too-convenient plot twists, staging encounters that come off as awkward and overly contrived. Lantana is a powerful look at indiscretions and the prices we pay for them, but its insistence on connecting all of its loose threads only serves to unravel what might otherwise have been a handsomely intricate quilt.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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