A Tangled Web

Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci) kiss

When David E. Kelley pitched his film Lake Placid to potential backers, he reportedly did so with one sentence: Jaws on a lake, with a crocodile. With Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001), a labyrinthine tale of multiple and interconnecting storylines, a drama about love and trust, any potential pitch would of necessity be considerably more complex.

The first film by Ray Lawrence since his stunning debut, Bliss (1985), Lantana is the story of a police detective, Leon Zat, who has become disenchanted with his life. He is married to a beautiful and intelligent woman, has a house in the burbs and a brace of sons, but somehow he is not the man he thought he would be. Emotionally, he is numb. He embarks on an affair with a woman who is estranged from her husband. She lives next door to a young couple who are doing it hard, but have a marriage based on love and fidelity. Leon’s wife is seeing a psychologist whose own marriage to a cold intellectual is on the rocks after their daughter was killed and the murder never solved. As the film unfolds, Leon becomes involved in a missing persons case that brings the disparate threads of the story together.

It’s not pithy and it’s devoid of punchy sound bites, but then Lantana isn’t that sort of film. Rather, it’s an ambitious project that works remarkably well for all its seemingly convoluted and incongruous plotlines. First, the script is top drawer. With so many Australian films it often seems like attention is paid to everything but the writing. In the case of Lantana, however, the considerable amount of time spent converting Andrew Bovell’s play, Speaking in Tongues, shows. What starts out as a modern drama of four mostly dysfunctional relationships segues seamlessly into a kind of suspenseful mystery, where the connections between the characters become tangled. It’s the sort of film Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) was trying to be, without the contrivances of characters breaking into song or frogs inexplicably falling from the sky.

Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) dance

As Lawrence describes it:

Lantana is a mystery, a thriller, but it is also much more than that. As we move through our lives and relationships there is, for most of us, a sense of slowly becoming invisible. I think sexual identity, or the loss of it, plays a big part. It happens at different times for different reasons. … It’s something that for the most part happens to all of us and the audience will recognize that day to day struggle we have with ourselves.

The suspense in the film is created not from contrived situations but rather from the skilful manner in which the characters’ and our expectations are built up from assumptions we’ve made and scenarios we’ve created, only for the reality to turn out far differently from what we – and they – have expected.

The performances in the film are all uniformly strong. The standout is Anthony LaPaglia as Leon. If ever LaPaglia was a nominee for matinee idol status, he’s blown it with Lantana, where he inhabits a beefy body with chunky face and sunken eyes. LaPaglia says he danced a jig when he was asked to play the part. The manner in which he inhabits his role makes it hard to imagine someone else doing as well. He delivers a very nuanced performance.

Kerry Armstrong is compelling as Leon’s wife, Sonja. In SeaChange, Armstrong was always likeable and effective, but as Sonja she’s required to play the far more complex part of a woman searching fruitlessly for passion in a marriage where it has all but fizzled out, and she does so with aplomb.

You would like to think that the need for Americans gratuitously appearing in Australian films as an international marketing device – think Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller & George Ogilvie, 1985) – was over. But in order to secure funding the producers needed another big name and Barbara Hershey answered the call. In fact she’s very believable in the role of Dr Valerie Somers. As a psychologist, Valerie is required to help her patients heal the past, live in the present and plan for the future – the very things she can’t do for herself. Valerie is so troubled that her problems spill into her work life, and her interaction with patient Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps) is fraught with tension. Phelps really percolates in his role as a gay man conflicted about his identity.

John (Geoffrey Rush) and Valerie (Barbara Hershey)

Valerie is married to John (Geoffrey Rush), an academic, and although both make their livings in jobs where communication is key, they’ve lost the ability to talk to one another. ‘Truth is as important to relationships as air is to breathing’, Valerie says at one point, and well she should know. Representing a turnaround from the larger than life oddball roles (David Helfgott et al) Rush has made a career out of, John is withdrawn and sullen.

In a film with the structure of Lantana, where stories overlap and characters step in and out of each other’s lives, any bad performance would bring the whole structure down. There are no troughs, though. Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci are convincing as the couple who are financially poor but emotionally the only ones that seem to have it together. Leah Purcell nails her support role, as does Rachael Blake, playing a woman looking for more excitement in her life. Even Glenn Robbins, who I was expecting to be a weak link, is excellent as a decent bloke wondering what he’s done to deserve the loss of his wife.

The characters in Lantana are middle-aged – the film is billed as an adult drama – but the issues they confront are universal. The movie is so deftly crafted that it should appeal to a broad audience – even without a snappy pitch.