Marital stress hangs like an albatross around the necks of all the primary characters in "Lantana," an viscous Australian ensemble piece that begins as an intricate, intimate web of rocky relationships and evolves into a tangled, disconcerting mystery.
Two floundering couples, connected through six-degrees-of-separation periphery, are at the center of the story. Anthony LaPaglia is Leon Zat, a police inspector who takes out his many frustrations on suspects and in bed with Jane (Rachael Blake), an almost-divorcee from the salsa dance class his wife drags him to every week. His marriage to brittle Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) has grown tepid and uncommunicative -- a fact that she regularly bemoans to her shrink, Valerie Sommers (Barbara Hershey).
Valerie is a woman who has had a hard time maintaining her professional detachment since her young daughter was murdered two years before. Her marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush), a prickly law school dean, has grown so numb since the loss of their child that they speak to each other -- even about sex -- like uneasy co-workers. And the fact that John deals with his sorrow in quietly tearful visits to the murder site while Valerie has chosen to grieve publicly, publishing a book about the killing, hasn't helped heal their rift.
Meanwhile, increasingly lonely and insecure Jane finds herself peering out from behind her living room curtains a lot, spying on her next door neighbors who seem to have the one thing missing from the movie's other relationships: Trust. Jane's subconsciously deliberate test of that trust derails her friendship with the struggling, blue-collar neighbors when she begins flirting with the husband.
Directed by Ray Lawrence (from his own stage play, "Speaking In Tongues") with a deft, perceptive eye and ear for the delicate verbal and emotional intercourse of frayed human relationships, "Lantana" bristles with unspoken tension, agitation and mistrust. Lawrence simply points the camera and fades away to let the film's fully immersed performances speak for themselves.
When the story takes a startling twist -- foreshadowed in the opening credits that play over a woman's inert body lying face down in a thicket -- further turmoil pulls all the characters closer together like abutting knots tied in a rope.
Leon leads an investigation that soon tests his ethics, while director Lawrence engages the all characters' psychological states to steer the movie's emotions and implications (criminal, extramarital and otherwise) toward conclusions that may not be as cut-and-dried as they seem.
Chunks of "Lantana" are driven by coincidental connections between characters, which are cleverly executed but start to feel like a crutch in the picture's last act. Lawrence becomes a little too enamoured of this contrivance and as the story draws toward the finale, you can't help but be distracted looking for all the plot idiosyncrasies to come full-circle.
But this is a minor problem that detracts only slightly from the film's unique exploration of the human condition under the duress of withered love.
Run time: 121 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 4th October 2001
Box Office USA: $4.3M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Releasing
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 93 Rotten: 10
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Ray Lawrence
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia as Detective Leon Zat, Rachael Blake as Jane 'Janie' O'May, Kerry Armstrong as Sonja Zat, Geoffrey Rush as John Knox, Barbara Hershey as Dr. Valerie Somers, Manu Bennett as Steve Valdez
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