directed by Ray Lawrence
(Lion's Gate, 2001)

The fly-covered body of a missing person lies half-hidden in a thicket along a back road. But who killed Dr. Valerie Somers is just one of the mysteries Detective Leon Zat has to solve before Lantana comes to its offbeat conclusion 121 minutes later.

Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) also has to figure out why his wife (Kerry Armstrong) insists on taking Latin dance lessons; why he chose to start an affair with one of their classmates, Jane O'May (Rachel Blake); why the man he accidentally collided with while jogging broke down and cried when Zat began screaming his head off at him; and why Zat himself no longer feels anything for anybody. He has, he tells his wife, gone "numb."

But Zat isn't the only one with mysteries on his hands: Somers wants to know why her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), rarely touches her anymore; Knox wants to know why their marriage collapsed with the death of their daughter two years earlier and why his wife, an accomplished psychiatrist, had to write a book about it; and O'May wants to know why her neighbor and sometime seduction target, Nik Daniels (Vince Colosimo), threw a shoe into a thicket near their houses late one night.

All this makes Lantana a complex thriller, not so much one mystery as a series of mysteries that run in concentric circles from couple No. 1, the Zats; to couple No. 2., Somers and Knox; to couple No. 3, O'May and her estranged husband, Pete; to couple No. 4, Nik and his estranging wife, Paula (Daniella Farinacci).

To further complicate matters, Zat focuses his suspicions on Somers' husband and a gay client of Somers -- and discovers in his investigation that Mrs. Zat was seeing Somers, too.

But Lantana is more than a complex who-done-it complicated by an entourage of unhappy people having unhappy affairs. It's a perceptive character study of a man who seems to have everything but happiness and, above all, a morality tale that goes to great lengths to show us what happens when a man avoids dancing with his wife.

Lantana is an amazing piece of work, especially given that it's only the second directorial effort for Ray Lawrence and his first since 1985's Bliss, a quirky comedy about the death of an ad exec. Lawrence carries a bit of that quirky humor over to Lantana, although here it forms mostly grist for the character-study mill, at least until the closing shots.

More important in Lantana are the shifting perspective and powerful performances Lawrence rings from his principals.

Rush is especially good, looking more like Ward Cleaver than Casanova Frankenstein in a very restrained role and baffling the audience almost as much as he baffles Zat. Just as good is Blake as the middle-aged seductress who seeks attention everywhere except from where it's coming.

And there's the musical score, a series of floating, shimmering guitar chords that signal the crossing over from one concentric circle to the next. It's an effective technique that helps heighten tension as the stakes mount.

Lantana may not make everyone's list of the Top 10 films of all time, but it's everything a film is supposed to be: an original story told in an offbeat style with intelligent dialogue, strong performances and a deft blend of wit and high seriousness. And, most of all, it has something to say. With any luck, it will tell Lawrence that 16 years is too long between films.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 30 November 2002

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