“Lantana” begins with a slow moving close-up of the tropical shrub that the film is named after. Despite the dense, thorny undergrowth, all we see are the sweet, colorful blooms. Then the camera moves in on an object. It is a woman. Her twisted, tangled body hints that she is dead. She is.

Like the Norman Rockwell opening of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” “Lantana” director Ray Lawrence is making a point. Lawrence is cluing us in that not everything is what it seems. The dramatic contrast between the lantana shrub and the dead woman reminds us that under everything beautiful lies some ugliness.

The facades of four couples are torn down in Lawrence’s powerful “Lantana,” a dramatic ensemble that reminded me of the best of Robert Altman’s character studies. In Andrew Bovell’s complex and mature script, based on his stage play “Speaking In Tongues,” the lives of the various characters crisscross in the most unexpected ways.

Indeed, even though the action takes place in and around Sydney, it’s a small world after all. It’s here where we first meet police detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a married man consumed by guilt over having a one-night stand with Jane (Rachael Blake), a recently divorced woman. Leon met Jane at a dance class his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) dragged him to with the hopes of reinvigorating their marriage.

When Leon and Jane’s one-night stand turns into a two-night stand, Leon finds himself standing at a crossroad in his life. His dilemma is put on hold when his life takes a critical detour. A local woman, noted psychiatrist Valerie Sommers (Hershey), has turned up missing. There’s no shortage of suspects.

First there’s Valerie’s husband John (Geoffrey Rush), who has been in a dark funk ever since their young daughter was kidnapped and murdered. Leon suspects John, but for reasons that won’t be discussed here. That’s the beauty of Bovell’s screenplay. The characters say so much, yet vital pieces of information are purposely left out to create the mystery.

It reminded me of “The Deep End,” an engrossing drama with Tilda Swinton as a mother who believes that she is covering up a murder to protect her son. Had the characters sat down and discussed what they believed was the truth, it would have saved them a lot of grief.

In “Lantana,” Valerie tries to help a gay patient get over his obsession with a married man, all the time suspecting that the man in question might be her own husband. Then there’s Jane, who remains friendly with neighbors Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci), even though her affair with Leon makes them feel uneasy.

While Leon carries on with Jane, Sonja seeks help from Valerie, admitting to her that lying about having an affair is worse than having one. As the character’s lives spin out of control, Valerie is the sun that brings them back into orbit. Of all the facades being shattered, Valerie’s is the most brittle. She has to pretend to be strong for her patients even though self doubt is clouding her life and mind like a cancer.

Her disappearance is served up as a mystery, but there’s much more suspense in the everyday situations the characters face. When Leon is late for dance class, he is shocked to learn that Sonja and Jane have been teamed up as partners. The real dance steps aren’t on the floor, but in the way the three characters attempt to diffuse an awkward situation.

Lack of information is vital to the suspense of the film. Is the person responsible for Valerie’s disappearance the same one who also murdered her daughter? We’re not sure, but it’s a possibility. “Lantana” is filled with possibilities, all fully realized by director Lawrence, whose last film was 1986’s “Bliss.” During that hiatus Lawrence has matured into a very satisfying director. He likes to get up close and personal with the actors, and it is this intimacy that draws us into their world.

LaPaglia is commanding as Leon, a morally bankrupt man hired to uphold the law. Leon goes through a metamorphosis in “Lantana,” and LaPaglia guides us through every step with assurance. Leon doesn’t ever say he loves his wife, but LaPaglia still conveys the unwritten word. Kerry Armstrong is so real as his wife Sonja that we want them to work through their troubles.

Even though she literally disappears from the film about half way through, Barbara Hershey is so extraordinary as Valerie that even when she’s not on the screen she is still on our minds. Hershey delivers a quiet, fragile performance enriched by an interior dialogue that is so heartbreaking we want to embrace her, unlike her husband John, who sees her as a reminder of what they have lost.

Rush is always interesting to watch, even in bad films like “The House On Haunted Hill.” His convincing blend of dignity and vulnerability perfectly suits John. There’s real spirit in Rachel Blake’s Jane, whose first taste of freedom outside her marriage ends up being with a married man.

“Lantana” has already won a boatload of Australian film awards, but you have to see the film to understand that it wasn’t a hand out for the home town favorite. With unforgettable performances, distinguished writing and taut direction, “Lantana” is one of the best films of the year.


Australian drama dissects marriage and murder


Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachel Blake, Vince Colosimo. Directed by Ray Lawrence. Rated R. 120 Minutes.


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