Directed by: Ray Lawrence
Starring: Anthony Lapaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong
Admirers of Ray Lawrence's Bliss (and I confess to being a major admirer) may be somewhat startled by his second film, Lantana (named for the pesky, invasive shrub), which arrives a mere 16 years after his debut work. (Prolific the man isn't.) Less stylish, less playful and certainly a lot less fantasticated, Lantana seems at first glance to be the work of a totally different man than the one who charted the incredible redemptive journey of advertising genius Harry Joy in Bliss. However, the deeper you go into Lantana the more similarities you find -- at least on a thematic level. It's impossible to watch the curious scene where Anthony LaPaglia has an inexplicable encounter with a fellow jogger and not recall the background vignette of the dying jogger in Bliss, or to see the anger of one character at another over a unasked for house-cleaning and not flashback on Harry Joy's wife's ire at him scrubbing the bathroom and making her look bad. The title of the film itself has a connection to one of Harry Joy's innumerable stories in Bliss, and both films dwell at length on the sub-tropical Australian foliage -- as if to suggest that nature could reclaim the place at any moment. But most of all, the films are similar owing to the theme of people who ought to know each other best not knowing each other at all. This is at the core of both films, but Lantana takes the idea even further. Anthony LaPaglia plays Leon Zat, a police detective suffering from a mid-life crisis and incipient heart trouble (another Harry Joy parallel), who is dallying with a woman, Jane (Rachael Blake), he met at his wife Sonya's (Kerry Armstrong) dance class. Unbeknownst to Leon, Sonya has been seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), for marital advice. Dr. Somers has her own set of issues, relating to the murder of her daughter (she's written a book on the topic) and the growing distance she perceives between herself and her own husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). In fact, she's so personally damaged that when a gay patient of hers (Peter Phelps) starts talking about the affair he's having with a closeted married man, she begins to believe the man in question is her own husband. The film very shrewdly offers no reason for her to suspect this tendency in John, and her suspicion seems more grounded in her seeing herself in the patient's description of his lover's wife as needy and manipulative and self-deceiving. All of this comes to a head when Dr. Somers vanishes one night on her way home and Zat is assigned to the case. If it sounds like Lantana is a detective thriller, it is in some ways. There is indeed a missing woman and a mystery. In fact, there are a series of mysteries, the answers to which are nearly all hidden by omission. As much as things are hidden from the characters themselves, Lawrence hides things from us by cutting away before we have the whole story, only later revealing to us that we actually don't have the whole story. And in each case, it's the lack of that whole story that leads to tragedy. Yes, the film contains a mystery, but it's more a mystery about the way people interact -- and how they keep themselves from truly being able to connect with each other. Lantana examines this condition with great insight and understanding -- along with at least two truly brilliant performances, from LaPaglia and Rush. Be warned, however, Lantana is very deliberately paced and may not be to everyone's liking because of that. Do I think it's as good as Bliss? Probably it isn't, if only because it's less adventurous as filmmaking, but I do think it's a worthy successor -- a fine film in its own right, and one that oughtn't be missed. I just hope we don't have to wait another 16 years for Lawrence's next film!