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Review: Difficult story, top-notch acting in 'Lantana'

Caring about the characters

Caring about the characters

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Given the present movie climate, it's tempting to say you should run out and see Ray Lawrence's "Lantana" simply because it's about flesh-and-blood adults, as opposed to computer-generated elves and broomstick-riding 12-year-olds.

Andrew Bovell's script (which he adapted from his award-winning play, "Speaking in Tongues") shoots multiple currents of sexual anxiety through modern-day Sydney, Australia, in a grueling manner that all but presupposes the film's death at the box office.

A gifted cast keeps the bummer moving forward with an intensity that's a thrill to behold. Unfortunately, Lawrence and Bovell make a near-ruinous mistake when they switch to a completely different game plan halfway through the film.

For no apparent reason, they decide to squelch the painstakingly established narrative with a ho-hum murder mystery. They lose track of the real story by trying to deepen it with an ill-fitting thematic device.

Interlocking circles

Anthony LaPaglia, delivering the best work of his film career, plays Leon Zat, a police detective with a secret. In an apparent attempt to generate new passion in their marriage, Leon and his aging-but-beautiful wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), are taking salsa dance lessons.


The sexual juices do start flowing again, but not in the direction they had hoped: Leon is secretly sleeping with their classmate, Jane (Rachael Blake), a desperate housewife who's separated from her husband.

Jane, a certifiable mess, is constantly on the lookout for a new man, to the point that she's started gazing a little too longingly at her younger next-door-neighbor, Nik (Vince Colosomo), never mind that Nik and his wife, Paula (Daniela Farinacci), are her only real friends.

Jane, who enjoys drinking and dancing lonely mambos in her living room, is an especially beaten-down cousin to a Tennessee Williams character. She so longs for physical contact, she won't even take a break from getting it on with Leon when he accidentally starts bouncing her head off of a headboard. That, and a couple of witheringly sarcastic put-downs, is about as funny as the movie gets.

Meanwhile, at the obligatory psychiatrist's office, Sonja has been pouring her heart out to Valerie (Barbara Hershey), an analyst who's written a popular book about her murdered daughter. Valerie and her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), are a loving couple, but they've had very little sex since the death of their child. Valerie is also dismayed by a gay patient (Peter Phelps) who's mixed up in a reckless relationship with a married man.

Bovell's rather pointless inclusion of Leon's lovelorn partner on the police force (Leah Purcell) completes his interlocking circles of despair; the film features so many chance meetings between the various characters, you'd swear that a dozen people inhabit the whole of Australia.

Standout performances

Lawrence shoots with precision and economy, but he's an actor's director through and through. There isn't room for visual flash in a movie that's so concerned with unspoken anguish.

Lawrence's fanciest conceit is the opening shot, a slow creep into a lantana bush that's thick with noisy bugs, and, not coincidentally, a dead body. The shot's David Lynch origins (remember those beetles tussling with each other beneath "Blue Velvet's" manicured lawn?) only plays up just how restrained Lawrence is. Lynch would have turned the story into a catalogue of grotesqueries. Lawrence cares too much about his characters to let that happen, and the same goes for his actors. Once again, this is a terrifically forceful ensemble cast. LaPaglia, who seemed poised for major stardom 10 years ago, has finally moved beyond his status as the poor man's Robert De Niro. Leon is a good man who's simply lost his way; a sweet moment when he forces his teen-age son to kiss him on the cheek before he heads off to school is an underplayed key to his character.

Armstrong and Blake, as the troubled women in his life, are the other standouts. Their beauty glows brightly through middle-aged skin. Blake's ability to slowly expose the self-serving rot in Jane's soul is the main element separating the two.

Any one of these performers could get an Oscar nomination if people would just take the time to look. Too bad the more or less unforgiving story will have chicken-hearted voters running for the exits before the fireworks start.

"Lantana" is made by, about, and for grown-ups. There's sex, bad language, and violence. If this had reached the United States before "Crocodile Dundee," Australian tourism would have quickly bottomed out. Give it a try, though. For the most part, it's well worth your attention.


• 'Lantana' official site

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