Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 11/01/01 13:45:18

"Intricacy and intimacy"
5 stars (Awesome)

Lantana is the name of director Ray Lawrenceís second feature film, and it comes 16 years after his first, the award-winning Bliss. It is also the common name of a flowering shrub that originated in South America but has spread throughout Australia and the Pacific. Covered in attractive flowers, lantana is often mistaken for an ornamental - but itís a noxious weed that stifles the growth of surrounding vegetation. Concealed beneath the flowery surface is a dense thicket of thorns.

The film opens with a glimpse of a body, suspended in the thorny branches of a lantana bush. Before we return to the mystery of that body, Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Lovell (adapting his play, Speaking in Tongues) introduce four couples and several important subsidiary characters. Lantana is about love, intimacy and trust and - like the shrub - the charactersí relationships are deceptively complex, heavily interconnected and frequently thorny.

Police detective Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) has a one-night stand with Jane (Rachael Blake), whoís recently separated from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). Leonís wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), worried about Leonís waning interest in her, is seeing a therapist - Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Valerieís marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) is floundering because they no longer relate to each other after the shocking murder of their young daughter. Valerie also feels threatened by a gay client, Patrick (Peter Phelps), whoís having an affair with a married man and is callous about the plight of his loverís wife. Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniella Farinacci) live next door to Jane and Pete. Their relationship appears to be rock solid, until Nik suspects that Jane is interested in him. Finally, Leonís police colleague Claudia (Leah Purcell) has her eye on a man who dines at a local restaurant.

Lantana moves steadily, but unhurriedly, thanks to Lawrenceís assured direction and Karl Soderstenís smooth editing. But when the plot complications multiply, and we return to the body from the opening (itís initially not obvious that itís one of the principals), Lantana grips as tightly as any thriller. The plotting is intricate and satisfying in its unexpected connections - this is the best ensemble drama of its type since Robert Altmanís Short Cuts. Bovell and Lawrence arenít juggling as many characters, but each is complex, rich and fully developed.

Phelps and Blake excel in less sympathetic roles. Rushís low-key work is unlike anything Iíve seen him do before. Hersheyís frailty is moving; Armstrong is heartbreaking in her yearning. Purcell is refreshingly down-to-earth and charming as Leonís partner. LaPagliaís character - and his performance - binds the film; he encounters all the other characters during his journey and supplies the moving finale. Not afraid to reveal Leonís unpleasantness, LaPaglia makes everything Leon does utterly real and, ultimately, forgivable.

The subtle work of costume designer Margot Wilson and production designer Kim Buddee helps the actors establish their characters. Mandy Walkerís cool, subdued cinematography gives the film a muted look, but Lantana is never depressing because you care so much about the characters and their plights.

I was a little confused about the filmís continuity at one point, but this would probably be clarified by a second viewing. At another moment, I felt like screaming at one of the characters to telephone a lawyer. But without any hype, Lantana has taken root in Australian cinemas, and itís gratifying to see such an accomplished, adult film find an appreciative audience.

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