starring Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong
screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on his play
directed by Ray Lawrence
by Walter Chaw Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is a police officer suffering from low self-esteem and a dwindled passion in his marriage to Sonja (the incredible Kerry Armstrong). When we first meet Leon, in fact, we know him only as an adulterer, witness to the first of his two indiscretions with the newly-separated Jane (Rachael Blake). Suspecting that Leon may be straying, Sonja visits a therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), confiding that, "It isn't that he's slept with another woman, it's that he's lied to me about it that's the betrayal." Lantana is obsessed with repression, of how one small secret kept for too long mutates and festers into insurmountable guilt and fear. Leon feels guilty about his adultery and is fearful of being discovered; later, Leon feels guilty for having been discovered, and is fearful that his wife no longer loves him. Sonja similarly worries that she doesn't love him anymore.
Valerie is in a precarious situation of her own, wondering if she did the wrong thing by writing of her young daughter, who was murdered two years previous. Valerie's husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), bottles up his grief around his wife. When Valerie disappears one night on a lonesome road and Jane witnesses her neighbour throwing something into the bushes, Leon arrives on the scene to investigate, and all of the meticulously crafted orbits of misery intersect in an Altman-esque series of serendipitous reunions and fortuitous (for the narrative) collisions. For all the ample pleasures offered by an ensemble character drama served up with acuity and sensitivity by an amazing cast and a sure, deliberate directorial hand, the most obvious strength of Aussie Ray Lawrence's Lantana is also its most glaring weakness. It inches along to the carefully-measured beat of its own sober rhythms, and while it does accrue a satisfying amount of gravity from such a strategy (relieved now and again by some well-timed comic jolts), it also provides too many endings and at least 30 extra minutes.
There are two major metaphors at work in Lantana, though they're clumsy enough that, if taken by themselves or as the keystone for the film, one would be erroneously led to believe that Lantana is nothing more than self-indulgent, awkward, and pretentious. The first is that Leon has a "pain in his chest" in a few key early moments, suggesting a deficit of "heart;" the second is that archaic bit of dusty allegorical nonsense attributing the most virtue to the subsistence-level peasants: the salt of the earth. Adapted by and based upon a stage play by Andrew Bovell called "Speaking in Tongues", Lantana betrays its theatrical roots first with strained symbolism and then with the unfortunate incestuousness of its small cast of characters. To the film's credit, the excessively convenient way its scattered cast is brought together is played for wry laughs, thus undercutting the nervous laughter one suspects would have otherwise accompanied the implausible rendezvous. The entire film works in this way: it's walking a perilous tightrope with "too stagy" on the one side and "too affected" on the other, teetering and yawing alarmingly at times. Yet it's always nimble enough to catch itself before an irredeemable fall into the abyss of indie failure.
In fact, a handful of scenes resonate due to the sharply-observed politics of interpersonal affairs, more than making up for a few miscalculated subplots that go nowhere (the poor couple serving as a pat example of bliss, the unexamined grieving of a lost child, the superfluous red herring involving one of Valerie's clients). Lantana, despite its occasional discomfort and laggardly pacing, has its share of rewards for the mature and active viewer. Like the people it seeks to examine, Lantana isn't perfect, but it makes those imperfections worth the bearing if only to get to the power of the film's truths.