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lantana bush is a tropical weed with colorful, scented flowers and dense spiky
undergrowth--a perfect symbol for the troubled marriages that are explored in the film of
the same name that arrives in the U.S. from Australia accompanied by accolades and
awards. Based on a play by Andrew Bovell, Speaking in Tongues, the film revolves
around the relationships of four married couples, three of which are badly strained.
Opening with a tracking shot over jungly acres of lantana plants with
the insistent noises of tropical insects droning on the soundtrack, the take ends with the
discovery of the corpse of a woman deep in the tangled undergrowth. Lantana's
plot weaves the multiple relationships around the mystery of this woman's death.
Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a brutal police detective with little
concern for the rights of suspects, is married and the father of two sons. He has a
two-night stand with Jane O'May (Rachel Blake) who is separated from her husband, Pete
(Glenn Robbins). Leon and Jane met at a salsa class that Zat attends with his wife, Sonja
(Kerry Armstrong). Unknown to Leon, Sonja is unhappy with the state of their marriage and
is secretly seeing a shrink, Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Somers' own marriage is
nothing to write home about; her law dean husband (Geoffrey Rush) doesn't often make love
to her and they both seem locked into the loss two years before of their eleven year old
daughter. Somers is also disturbed by a gay patient, Patrick (Peter Phelps), who is having
an affair with a married man--could that man be her husband?
Fine performances by the entire ensemble and dialogue that accurately
captures the tone both of what is said and what isn't--the pauses, the omissions--combine
to create a credible collection of permutations and variations on the strains of marriage.
Temptations, frustrations, trust and the failure of trust, secrets and betrayals all come
into play, and love, even when there, is not always enough to sustain the relationship.
Where all too many films are plot-driven with minimal characterization,
Lantana's well-realized characterizations are undermined by the strained and
artificial developments of the plot. The chance interconnectedness of several of the
characters defies belief, and Leon's illegal investigatory procedures, which seem unlikely
under the circumstances, become key plot devices.
The fourth couple--the couple with a healthy relationship--consists of
an unemployed father who stays home and takes care of their brood of children while his
wife works double shifts to support the family. Playwright Andrew Bovell, who adapted his
play for the screen, seems to suggest that there is greater fragility in marital
relationships in the middle classes than in the working classes, but if that was what was
intended, it's a simplistic thesis at best.
Director Ray Lawrence takes a straightforward approach with his camera;
it's in his work with the actors that his skills shine. But if the characterizations are
the flowers of Lantana, the plot is its thorny undergrowth, its contrived
machinations detracting significantly from the success of the total product.
- Arthur Lazere