Saturday, March 12, 2011

Off the Shelf: Lantana (2001)

The Australian psychological thriller Lantana, like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) and P. T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999), is a movie that examines the emotional torpor and malaise of an ensemble. But this drama by director Ray Lawrence (Bliss) and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (based on his play Speaking in Tongues) doesn't make its individuals such easy targets of scorn and moral judgment (like The Ice Storm). It doesn't provide condescending views of spiritual bankruptcy either (as did Magnolia). Lantana, which is named for a spiky weed that covers Australia, is thought-out in more dramatically compelling and complex ways than Magnolia. It develops the connections between these disparate characters rather than imposing those connections for the sake of its own conceits.

Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is an unhappily married detective who is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a recently divorced woman. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), because she suspects that Leon is seeing someone else. Dr. Somers, meanwhile, is still recovering from the shock of the murder of her daughter. She even has her own suspicions that her emotionally remote husband (Geoffrey Rush) is being unfaithful. The only happy couple appears to be the unemployed but genial Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his sturdy wife Paula (Daniela Farinacci). But when a disappearance and possible murder takes place, everyone's life becomes affected and altered.

Lantana is a delicately tangled drama about how false assumptions get built on mistrust. But what helps unravel the labyrinth structure of the story is the fascinating unpredictable shifts of emotion in the actors. Anthony LaPaglia has never before shown the raging emotions, or the deep regret, that's buried under his beefiness. Rachael Blake is sensually captivating as an emotionally-scarred woman who feels debauched and in desperate need of human contact. Kerry Armstrong plunges into the humiliating rage of a wife betrayed by her husband's lack of faith in their marriage. Geoffrey Rush, then fresh from his astonishing work in Quills (2000) and The Tailor of Panama (2001), is both enigmatic and riveting. Only Barbara Hershey's therapist appears to be drawn too enigmatically which leaves her performance seeming relatively opaque.

While Lantana may seem to some a little too cleverly woven together (the chances of these characters all meeting shows a bit of writer's convenience), the film still effectively draws one into the murky waters of human transgression.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale. He's also facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University continuing on March 13th with John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon.

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