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cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, and Vince Colosimo

director: Ray Lawrence

116 minutes (15) 2001
Winchester/Universal VHS rental

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Lantana is an Australian shrub, displaying attractively coloured flowers to the world but dense and thorny underneath; an appropriate metaphor for the goings-on in Ray Lawrence's film. The opening shot shows us a body (whose, we don't yet know) in the shrubbery, but this is really a multi-stranded character drama set in present-day Sydney that uses a murder mystery as a plot motor.
   Forty-something detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is married to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). They have two children. Leon is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake). Sonja senses that something is amiss in her relationship with Leon, but isn't sure what. She consults her therapist, Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Valerie has a few demons of her own, having written a book about her murdered 11-year-old daughter. Also, her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) is distant to her. Another patient, Patrick (Peter Phelps), a gay man, talks of his relationship with a married man, and Valerie is worried this might be her husband...
   I won't say any more about the plot, as there are twists and turns in Andrew Bovell's script (based on his play Speaking In Tongues) that you should discover for yourself. Lantana is a rarity in today's cinema: a fully adult film for grown-up audiences. None of the characters are overtly heroic: Leon is unfit and in the throes of a midlife crisis, unfaithful to his wife, and is overcome by his temper in his police work, occasionally. (He's particularly intolerant of anything involving drugs, and there's a key scene where he finds some in his son's room.) But as the film progresses, Bovell and director Lawrence immerse us in his and the others' lives, and make us care what happens to them.
   The cast respond with career-best performances in some cases, notably LaPaglia's superb work in the central role. Barbara Hershey demonstrates that if Hollywood has few good roles for women over forty or fifty, then they might well look further a field. Lantana is only Ray Lawrence's second feature after 1985's ambitious but uneven Bliss. He's been making commercials in between. Let's hope that we don't have to wait such a long time for his next film. Lantana is one of the best films to come our way in the last few years.