A Tangled Web
Lantana recently swept the Australian Film Industry Awards, taking Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress prizes over its much-touted competitor, Moulin Rouge. The sweep signaled a severe turnaround in what an Australian audience might expect from its very capable filmmakers: realism. Australian cinema for far too long has relied on its “quirky” appeal for international success. Alongside recent hits Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000) and Better Than Sex (Jonathan Teplitsky, 2000), Lantana proves that local storytellers no longer need loveable anti-heroes and a supporting cast of offbeat simpletons to get noticed.
Lantana follows four couples, each in a different phase. These relationships form the base plot for Lantana, named for a plant that grows as a kind of tangled web. Leon (Anthony LaPaglia, who has thankfully reverted to his Australian accent here) and Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) are married with two teenaged boys; Leon is having an affair and Sonja is desperate to rekindle her passion with him. Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci) are madly in love, with a bunch of toddlers to look after on a single wage. Dr. Valerie Summers (Barbara Hershey) and her academic husband John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) are struggling to come to terms with the murder of their daughter. And while Jane (Rachael Blake) and Pete (Glenn Robbins) are separated, Pete is not fully able to let go.
The film opens on a woman’s dead body, then progresses through a sequence of scenes: Leon and Jane having an affair; Sonja discussing what’s missing in her life and her suspicions about Leon to her psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Summers; Jane flirting with her next-door neighbour, Nik; and another of Dr. Summers’s clients, Patrick (incredibly well played by Stingers TV star, Peter Phelps), discussing his affair with a married man whom Valerie believes to be her own husband. This interwoven introduction demonstrates that all of the separate characters in Lantana are connected, whether they know it or not. A murder mystery, in which Leon suspects John and Jane suspects Nik, complicates matters even further.
We soon learn that the body in the lantana bushes is that of the murdered Valerie Summers. Writer Andrew Bovell uses this murder plot only to tie his characters in knots around each other. The interconnection of characters is something that may have been innovative had it not been done to greater effect by Robert Altman in Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia (Lantana‘s advertising campaign also steals the Magnolia poster design almost entirely, featuring lower case lettering flanked by a lantana plant).
What is more unsettling about the contrived murder mystery is just how unnecessary it is, because Lantana is, primarily, a story about relationships. While a little confusing at times, the relationships between the above-mentioned characters are strongly developed in the first half of the film, though they sadly take a backseat following Valerie’s disappearance. The film quickly meanders off into the absurd and is disappointing from then on, making the “coincidences” that arise all too predictable and its conclusion most unsatisfying. Perhaps it is after seeing Magnolia and the like that the coincidences, including Leon meeting Pete (whom he doesn’t know…yet) in a bar and the identity of Patrick’s partner in his affair, lack any possible surprise.
For me, Lantana‘s strength is AFI’s Best Actress, Kerry Armstrong as Sonja. I found myself wishing the rest of the characters would just disappear so I could continue watching her alone. Sonja loves Leon but can’t shake the feeling he is seeing someone else. We know she is correct, which makes her struggle more compelling. When her suspicions are eventually confirmed, her courage and her sadness as she begins to fall apart make for powerful viewing: Armstrong’s face conveys confusion, despair, and rage simultaneously. And, while her accomplishment is the standout, other actors’ portrayals are some of the best in recent Australian film. LaPaglia delivers the performance of his career as Sonja’s husband—a man who loves her intensely, never questioning that connection as he delves into his own midlife rediscovery.
Lantana deserves its accolades for, if nothing else, setting a tone for Australian filmmakers and reaching a level to which they should now aspire. The film succeeds in portraying Australians with honest emotions rather than used-up stereotypes uttering hackneyed phrases over shots of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.