LOVE IS THE GREATEST MYSTERY.
This film has been marketed as the new Short Cuts, and there’s some truth in that. This is another one of those grand movies with a sprawling cast of characters who are all intertwined in some way. Everyone has problems, and they all connect. Don’t look too hard for originality here. However, anyone looking for a really solid and intriguing drama about people who suffer the consequences of making mistake after mistake is in for a treat.
The film is set in a middle class neighborhood somewhere in Australia. The first scene, a tracking shot, reveals a woman’s dead body hidden in shrubs. We realize that this is the MacGuffin, the device most likely to keep the story going. We are subsequently introduced to several couples. Detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is married to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). He is not feeling well at all, suffering chest pains, losing his temper over nothing and fooling around with Jane (Rachael Blake) who attends the same dance class as he and his wife. Sonja is seeing a therapist, Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), because she’s afraid that her husband might be having an affair. She finds it very difficult to answer a direct question about whether she loves her husband or not.
Valerie is married to John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) and their marriage went sour after the murder of their young daughter. John is very cold and Valerie begins to suspect that he might be having an affair with a gay client of hers, a man who in session seems to be talking about her. Jane is also married, although her relationship is, you guessed it, pretty dead. She’s hoping her affair with Leon might become something permanent. She has a good relationship with her neighbors, Paula (Daniela Farinacci) and Nik (Vince Colosimo), but that’s about to go south as well because of a critical event that makes Nik look like a possible murderer.
Plenty to ponder afterwards
A lot of things go bad in this movie. One of the characters eventually disappears, and we realize that she’s the dead lady in the opening sequence. It’s a missing-person case at first that falls into Leon’s lap, but it’s obvious that it’s going to become a murder investigation. The movie doesn’t reveal too much, and in the end we are genuinely surprised to see what actually happened. So much that goes on in the film is negative that we’re expecting a different ending, something much darker.
On the other hand, some of the crises portrayed in the film do get a happy ending. I love the way Leon and Sonja find the way back together after their misadventures with other people. It’s nothing spectacular, really, it’s just very believable and romantic in a toned-down way. Other resolutions are darker. One can’t help but wonder what Rush’s unsentimental and depressing character will do next… and what about Jane? Will her marriage spring to life again and will her neighbors ever forgive her? That’s the sign of a good movie; there’s plenty to ponder after seeing it. LaPaglia gives a terrific performance as the cop who fails to understand why a grown man would ever break down and cry; the actor even manages to find his old Aussie accent again after all those years in the U.S..
Hershey, the sole American in the cast, is touching as the psychologist, an emotional wreck, and Rush is effectively evasive as the husband who resents her for writing a book about the murder of their child.
The noxious lantana plant is a menace to everything in its vicinity. The bush stands as a symbol for the entangled relationships in this film. It’s a common plant, but this kind of film is not, unfortunately.
Lantana 2001-Australia-Germany. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jan Chapman. Directed by Ray Lawrence. Screenplay, Play: Andrew Bovell (“Speaking in Tongues”). Cast: Anthony LaPaglia (Leon Zat), Geoffrey Rush (John Knox), Barbara Hershey (Valerie Somers), Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake, Vince Colosimo.
Last word: “I couldn’t believe what a good script this was. They’d sent it to me but hadn’t told me which role they wanted me for. And as I was reading it, I kept thinking, ‘please let it be Leon’. It’s probably the best part that has ever come my way.” (LaPaglia, Urban Cinefile)