Sex, guilt, secrets

Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong cuddle up in <i>Lantana</i>. Not pictured: Bob Carol, Ted, Alice, Tinker, Evers, Chance.

Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong cuddle up in Lantana. Not pictured: Bob Carol, Ted, Alice, Tinker, Evers, Chance.

Rated 4.0

Four married couples physically and emotionally bump up against each other and become entangled during a missing persons investigation in the slowly writhing, compelling Australian drama Lantana. The film’s title and core metaphor refers to the gnarled tropical shrub in which exotic flowers and lush green leaves camouflage its dense, twisted undergrowth of thorny branches. The story is driven by relationships that have become maze-like breeding grounds of secrets, deceit, betrayal and guilt, and are now withering and gasping for redemption.

The film opens with the camera peering and then submerging into a lantana thicket. We are guided to the decomposed body of a woman. It is a grisly sight. We are then suddenly thrust into a motel bedroom in which a man and woman are passionately copulating. These cold and hot flashes jump-start a story in which just about everyone is miserable and has something to hide. The rocky terrain of marriage is explored within a skeletal crime story as people struggle to both live with and love their companions as well as themselves.

Forty-something Detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is on the ropes both physically and mentally. He doesn’t want to die just yet so he jogs. The jogging nearly kills him. His wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) drags him to salsa dance class where he broods and dances poorly and saves his energy for having sex with a dance class member, the lonely divorcee Jane (Rachael Blake).

Sonja believes her husband is having an affair so she visits psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Valerie has written a book about the murder of her young daughter. The death could have brought her closer to her attorney-husband John (Geoffrey Rush). It didn’t. Their marriage is now held together only by grief and Sonja believes John is having a homosexual affair.

A missing persons case interconnects these people with Jane’s estranged husband and a neighbor couple (Glenn Robbins and Daniela Farinacci) with financial problems. The case reverberates through everyone’s life as the thriller aspects of the film take a back seat to a moody study of character and sexuality, which is to say the film has more in common with Down Under’s Picnic at Hanging Rock than it does Dead Calm.

Andrew Bovell adapted the script from his play Speaking in Tongues, in which a woman talks mostly to her home answering machine after her car breaks down. He has competently expanded the theatrical construction into a full-bodied work that illuminates the differences between love and sex, affairs and overnight stands, and trust and loyalty. The plotting relies heavily on coincidence, which softens its bite a bit, but the slow leak of secrets and emotions is powerfully choreographed.

Ray Lawrence’s direction has the pedestrian feel of a cable movie at times, but the acting more than compensates for missing cinematic panache. LaPaglia premiered as the love-smitten gangster in Betsy’s Wedding before starring as a lawyer on TV’s Murder One and winning a Tony for his role in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. He was named Best Actor by the Australian Film Institute for his role as Leon and is just as credible fishing a damning earring from the crotch of his pants while driving his car as he is breaking into sobs during a moment of soul-baring revelation. The rest of the cast is also excellent.

Lantana is about people who deceive themselves as much as they do others, one day suddenly realizing they no longer love their spouse, are now numb to another person’s touch, and are merely going through the motions of marriage but want more than that. It’s a world in which sometimes love is not enough to keep couples together, where it’s easy to go out and find somebody and often hard not to.

“Why are you trying so hard to fuck up your life at this moment,” Leon is asked by his female cop partner. It’s a question we all need to stop and ask ourselves at times or be left, as warned in the Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime,” in the wreckage, saying, “My god, what have I done!”