Lantana (2001)


(director: Ray Lawrence; screenwriter: Andrew Bovell, based on his stage play “Speaking in Tongues”; cinematographer: Mandy Walker; editor: Karl Sodersten; music: Paul Kelly; cast: Anthony LaPaglia (Leon Zat), Geoffrey Rush (John Knox), Barbara Hershey (Dr. Valerie Somers), Kerry Armstrong (Sonja Zat), Rachael Blake (Jane O’May), Peter Phelps (Patrick Phelan), Leah Purcell (Claudia), Vince Colosimo (Nik Daniels), Daniella Farinacci (Paula Daniels), Glenn Robbins (Pete O’May), Nicholas Cooper (Sam Zat), Marc Dwyer (Dylan Zat); Runtime: 120; Lions Gate Films; 2001-Australia)

“Lantana couldn’t quite pull off being both a mystery story and a psychological drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A psychological thriller resulting in an unsolved murder. It is set in modern Sydney, Australia. The bleak film opens with the shot of dense flowering shrubs in the woods (lantanas, used here as a symbol of thorny relationships) and the dead body of an unidentified woman underneath the thicket of thorny shrubs. In the next scene the story’s central character is introduced in a compromising position. Detective Sergeant Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is middle-aged, overweight, pathetic and belligerent. He is enjoying his romp in the sack with the troubled Jane O’May (Rachael Blake), who is estranged from her condescending husband Pete (Glenn Robbins) because she doesn’t love him anymore; while Leon is a depressed married man with two teenage sons and a sexually frustrated wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). The Zats are going through a midlife crisis (the passion has gone out of their marriage). Leon views this as only a one-night stand while Jane tells her working-class neighbor Paula (Farinacci), who has hit marital bliss with her unshaven but trustworthy hubby Nik (Colosimo), that she hopes the relationship will amount to something. Leon met Jane at a salsa dance class that he reluctantly attended because his wife wanted to liven things up.

Warning: spoilers throughout review.

Director Ray Lawrence (“Bliss“) adapts to the screen Andrew Bovell’ stage play “Speaking in Tongues,” a character driven story that connects the unhappy lives of an assorted number of people to the murdered lady. It turns out the victim is psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), someone who Sonja just started seeing because she suspects her hubby of cheating and wanted advice on how to deal with her marriage woes.

But even the psychologist is not free of psychological problems. Valerie is locked into a cold and sexless marriage with academic law professor John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), that is held together by the grief they share. Their eleven year old girl was murdered a few years ago and Valerie wrote a book about it to possibly give it closure. Though filled with unsolved personal problems this doesn’t stop her from being an expert on her client’s deep-rooted problems. The client who rattles her most is a confrontational gay man, Patrick (Peter Phelps), who is having an affair with a married man and is upset that his lover won’t leave his wife for him. She becomes judgmental about his affair and takes what he says about his lover’s marriage to heart about her marriage. She thinks that Patrick might be having an affair with her husband and is trying to tell her something.

Valerie’s car breaks down on a deserted road at night and the road service won’t respond immediately, and when she telephones her husband he does not pick up the phone even as she pleads for help into the message machine. When she spots a truck on the road she flags it down and the inarticulate Nik picks her up, but when he takes a short-cut through the woods without telling her — she runs out of his truck in a panic and into the woods.

The story is less a mystery story than one about lack of communication and the inability to trust and love in a marriage. The only completely trusting couple are the Daniels–as Paula believes Nik didn’t kill Valerie because he said he didn’t.

The film could have been involving but it wasn’t expansive enough, and it tried too hard to tie all the unhappy couples together and spell out their problems without giving the viewer breath to see this themselves. The film tried to say marriages don’t work because of deceit and if one wants to get at the truth only a shrink (stranger) could ask the right questions and receive an honest answer.

Lantana couldn’t quite pull off being both a mystery story and a psychological drama, as it sapped strength from both by having too many comparisons of one to the other. In the end what was uncovered is how miserable the middle-aged couples are because they have deceived themselves. But the film had an appropriately moody noirish look of circumspection and the strongly expressive performances by LaPaglia, Blake, and Armstrong carried the film begrudgingly into daylight. The performances are the thing to get excited about. Even Leah Purcell does a good job in a minor role as LaPaglia’s junior detective partner and trusted confidante. She’s the single woman who patiently waits for the right man to come into her life and calms her excitable partner down when he gets too emotional over his police work.