Lantana is a voluptuous dance about love, pain and the whole damn thing.
Made and set in Sydney, Australia, this ensemble piece about four couples crisscrossing through a possible murder may unsettle Americans accustomed to "relationship" films that mistake singleness of purpose for virtue. Lantana is fluid, vivid and free, whether in the bedroom or out of it.
The male lead, an unhappy middle-aged police detective with the terrifically evocative name of Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), knows he's just going through the motions despite two stalwart women in his life - his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and his partner Claudia (Leah Purcell). So Leon has sex with Jane (Rachael Blake), a woman from the salsa dance class he attends with Sonja.
That affair is only one spoke circling out from the movie's hub. Sonja knows her marriage is foundering and sees a psychotherapist named Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who has been traumatized by the murder of her 11-year-old daughter. The loss has divided Valerie from her academic husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), rather than bring them together. And Jane, separated from a regular-guy husband named Pete (Glenn Robbins), spends her days practicing salsa moves and spying on the happy couple next door, Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci).
The movie opens with the enigmatic image of a body caught and torn in the thorns of lantana, a prickly tropical plant with pretty flowers. Starting with that corpse, Lantana has a Law and Order hook, complete with a veritable botanical garden of suspects and potential victims. Yet it uses suspense playfully, to arouse our prejudices - and to deflate them. The real suspense comes not from cracking a case but from questioning whether these couples can survive.
The title, of course, is a metaphor; Lantana burns away the surface of its characters to reveal the emotional underbrush.
In one sense, the director, Ray Lawrence, and the writer, Andrew Bovell (who adapted his own play, Speaking in Tongues), are fearlessly traditional: they dramatize trust as the essential quality of good relationships. But what makes their movie burrow into a viewer's hide is the way it gets at confusions that can't easily be defined.
Valerie and John convey the curse of the super-educated - the agony of knowledge without passion. John realizes that grief is all that binds his marriage, even when grief also is warping it. He resents Valerie for writing a book about their daughter, but he can't bring himself to tell her. At the other end of the spectrum, Nik and Paula (he's unemployed; she's a nurse) have the instinctive honesty that stands up under tension.
The couples in-between live in a semi-comfortable limbo: that "civilized" atmosphere in which discussion is supposed to solve everything and rarely solves anything. The movie does honor talk, or at least confession, as a way that one spouse can come clean with another. But Leon and Sonja and Jane and Pete can't articulate exactly why their marriages are in trouble. What they feel is the absence of love, or the distance of a partner even when they're together.
LaPaglia, playing a character with a tricky heart (literally - he gets chest pains), expresses both the absurdity and the residual emotion of a man who's lost touch with why he got married and perhaps why he became a cop. He's pitched on the brink of exhaustion, more dogged than dynamic on the beat or in the sack. But he gives off hints of fellow-feeling, often at the most surprising times, whether with his female partner or with a guy he briefly bonds with at a bar, not realizing that the man is Pete, Jane's estranged husband. LaPaglia fills out Leon's bulky frame with vibrant shades of gray, with a charcoal-red at the edges.
The movie has been faulted for flinging the characters together not merely around the murder, but also at random moments. (For example, Pete enters the same bar as Leon for a drink because Valerie, whom he doesn't know, has just yelled at him for inexplicable reasons.)
The series of planned and unplanned confrontations enriches the action and challenges the cast in diverse ways. Hershey is marvelous at capturing how Valerie suppresses her despair in her therapy sessions - where she grows to fear that John is homosexual - and lets it all out in the street. That brilliant actor Rush crafts a daringly impassive, ultimately heartbreaking performance as John. Even Rachael Blake's Jane is touching; she's both eager for love and a great dissembler.
Best of all, Kerry Armstrong as Sonja conveys the heroism and the sexiness of marital devotion. With her alternately wounded and hopeful eyes and what seems like immediate access to her emotions, she exudes a mellow heat.
The movie's intentionally random structure serves three purposes: It brings home the similarity of the characters' existential aches under the skin. It peps up the movie's landscape of fallen emotions with a pleasing zig-zag architecture.
And it illustrates how men try, and fail, to cover up their agony, whether they're with pals they've known forever or bar-mates they've known for an instant.
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey, Geoffrey Rush, and Kerry Armstrong
Directed by Ray Lawrence
Rated R (language and sexuality)
Released by Lions Gate
Running time 120 minutes
Sun score ****