Rated R - Running Time: 2:01 - Released 12/14/01

Lantana, the sophomore effort of Australian director Ray Lawrence, is a delightfully complex study into the nature of love, marriage, fidelity, and loneliness. Lawrence, whose only other feature was the well-received 1998 film Bliss, is quickly becoming a respected craftsman of intelligent cinema, and his work teaches us Americans not only that our friends "down under" are more than a bunch of affable Foster's ale-drinking cutups and crocodile-chasing daredevils, but what film can and should be, regardless of its country of origin.

The film starts with an aerial tracking shot of a huge lantana bush, with its beautiful tropical flowers hiding the deadly sharp thicket of thorns beneath, and then we see something even more ominous. After this, we meet Sydney police investigator Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), who are trying to save their stale marriage by attending latin dance classes. However, we learn that Leon is having an affair with another woman from the class, Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), whose own marriage has already begun to crumble. Meanwhile Sonja, unbeknownst to her husband, has sought counseling from well-known author/psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), confiding that she suspects Leon of infidelity, but that she's not as hurt by the possibility of his having an affair as his failure to tell her about it. "That would be the real betrayal," she says. Dr. Somers, meanwhile, is suffering her own marital problems, as she and her husband, law professor John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), have been wracked with grief over the murder of their young daughter Eleanor, about whom Valerie has written a best-selling book. Their relationship has come to an emotional standstill, and Valerie has even begun to suspect John of having an affair as well, possibly with another of her clients.

After the expository period during which we learn about these couples, one of the above characters disappears, and Leon and his partner (Leah Purcell) are assigned to the case. During the investigation, he learns of his wife's psychiatric therapy and suspicion of him. Although he has already broken his affair off with Jane, his guilt is reawakened and his emotional state begins to suffer. Meanwhile, Jane witnesses something related to the case, and this brings her back in contact with Leon.

Apart from American actress Hershey, this is pretty much an all-Australian production, with well-respected actors like Rush, LaPaglia, Armstrong, and Blake bringing exquisitely to life the characters and relationships in writer Andrew Bovell's story (based on his play Speaking In Tongues) against the backdrop of suburban Sydney. Upon its world premiere in summer 2001, it garnered a virtual sweep of the Australian Film Institute, Critic's Circle, and Independent Film Awards, but its initial U.S. showing in September may have been hurt by the events of international importance that were unfolding at the time. Regardless of bad timing, however, this film deserves all its accolades, as director Lawrence uses all his talent and that of his excellent cast to show us the many sides of marriage and sex, grief and betrayal, and Bovell's script, not content to simply present a collection of couples and their problems, wraps the whole story up in an intriguing murder mystery. Just as the lantana bush is used as a metaphor for the intricate and sometimes deceptive nature of the human psyche, so is it an indication of the harsh and twisting reality of a complex murder investigation, where things do not always turn out to be as simple as they appear. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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