Australia 2001 : Ray Lawrence : 121 mins

Mainstream cinema serves up so few genuine ‘adult dramas’ these days that the phrase has become degraded into a euphemism for softcore b-movies that fill up late-night TV schedules. It’s very easy to mistake the professional, solid likes of, say, Insomnia for the real thing – until you encounter a film of genuine depth and subtlety like Lantana. Likewise, there’s nothing actually wrong with Al Pacino’s tired, haunted, morally fractured cop from the Nolan movie – unless you place the performance alongside Anthony Lapaglia’s here, and realise how stale and repetitive Pacino’s (and De Niro’s) work in similar roles has become in recent years.

Lapaglia’s Leon Zat is a slightly overweight, slightly thuggish detective living with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and two teenage sons in an upscale Sydney suburb. Dissatisfied with his job and marriage, Leon drifts into a casual affair with Jane (Rachael Blake) who lives next door to struggling young couple Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniella Farinacci). Sonja immediately detects that something is seriously amiss and, unable to confront her husband, confides her suspicions in her psychiatrist Valerie (Barbara Hershey), whose own marriage to law professor John (Geoffrey Rush) has been on rocky ground since their 11-year-old daughter was murdered one year before. Driving on a deserted back-road one night, Valerie has a car accident and goes missing. Leon is assigned to the case, and during his research he stumbles across the tapes of Sonja’s sessions.

This is more synopsis than anyone needs going into Lantana, but it barely scratches the surface of Andrew Bovell’s dazzlingly intricate script – adapted from his own play Speaking In Tongues. It’s a mark of Bovell’s achievement that anyone encountering Lantana with no knowledge of its history would never guess it started life in the theatre – the detailing of character and incident are, if anything, close to what you’d expect from a medium-length novel. (It’s also, incidentally, very difficult to see what the term ‘Speaking in Tongues’ has got to do with this story – and we’re never actually told that ‘Lantana’ is the species of plant that figures so prominently from time to time.)

The number of characters may not be especially large, but they keep encountering each other in a manner than isn’t so much “small world” as “microscopic world” – when a mysterious, unseen but oft-referred-to character finally appears, it comes a major surprise that he’s a completely unfamiliar face. This is a variation of the roundelay structure most often associated with the Robert Altman of Nashville and Short Cuts, but perhaps most skilfully deployed in recent years in John Sayles’ City of Hope, in which only the viewer is fully aware of the various interactions and coincidences that bind a disparate community together.

While as a storytelling format the roundelay has many strong points, plausibility isn’t among them. This only becomes a slight problem in Lantana when the drama darkens into more conventional thriller territory, and Nik becomes the prime suspect in Leon’s investigations. But while it’s slightly disappointing to see the tale’s distinctive intricacy coarsen into something approaching a twisty whodunnit, this is a reasonable price to pay – the thriller aspects are Bovell’s way of focussing the loose, wayward material of life into the necessary confines and closures of a time-constrained format. Likewise, it’s amazing that he and Lawrence able to inject such fresh new life into two of what usually seem like the laziest ways of bringing multiple characters together: the psychiatrist’s office, and the dance class (which Leon, Sonja and Jane all attend).

It’s crucial that the performances are so uniformly strong – Armstrong is first among equals as the wounded, surprisingly tough Sonja. But this is a real ensemble piece – the actors taking full advantage of the space afforded to them by Bovell and Lawrence to create rounded, very un-movie-ish characters, even in the more minor roles. But they do so with no trace of indulging their cast – many scenes often end daringly early, just before the real emotional blowouts and confrontations. It’s gratifying to find a film that places this kind of trust in its viewers – and entirely appropriate, as trust is, in all its various forms, what Lantana is all about.

16th September, 2002
(seen same day, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index