directed by Ray Lawrence with Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, and Rachel Blake opens Jan. 25 at Harvard Exit
MIDDLE-AGED MARITAL meltdowns have gripped the January box office, first with In the Bedroom, where violence outside the home causes anguish within, and now with this Australian prizewinner where domestic turmoil leads to a death in the wilds. Lantana is both a murder mystery (with a detective protagonist) and a marital study—you could call it Crime Scenes From a Marriage.
Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) have two fine sons and a nice house, but the romance has plainly disappeared from their relationship. She drags him to a salsa dancing class—which he clearly loathes. There he meets and soon begins an affair with opportunistic Jane (Rachel Blake), who's separated from her husband.
Why does Leon two-time lovely Sonja? Well—he's the detective but scarcely seems to understand it himself. (Nor does his disapproving, lovelorn female police partner.) "Because I'm numb, just totally fucking numb," is the best midlife crisis explanation he can offer. Jogging apoplectically through the rolling Sydney suburbs, chain-smoking Leon looks overdue for a heart attack. Fear of mortality may be impelling him to spread his seed, or the sleuth could unconsciously be seeking to add mystery and danger to his safely domesticated life.
By contrast, affluent hill-dwelling John and Valerie, whom Leon meets in the course of a police investigation, have got a thicket of darkness and suspicion between them. Now childless, the pair wallows in work and silence. New Age pabulum-spouting therapist Valerie (Barbara Hershey) has turned tragedy into a best seller, while dour law professor John (Geoffrey Rush) spends late evenings at the office—raising her fears that he's secretly conducting a gay affair.
All these unhappy couples—plus a few more—interact in Lantana (the title refers to a thorny shrub where a corpse is found). Characters are bound together sexually ࠬa La Ronde, yielding a roundelay of coincidence and connection with tidy construction likewise derived from a stage play.
ITS PAT THEMES do make Lantana rather reductive at times. "Trust me," one character is implored, but that plea falls on disastrously deaf, distrustful ears. The picture also dubiously posits that all secrets are essentially malign, that all emotional reserve—here stereotypically male—is fundamentally destructive. When Valerie asks her husband what he's thinking during a tense car ride, he memorably snaps back, "Why do women always want to know that?"
In this way Lantana is a cathartic, TV-familiar, Oprah-ready message movie with a not-so-fresh lesson about the importance of communication. (You can imagine Deepak Chopra and marriage counselors making it required viewing.) But even if it can't match the superior, more astringent Bedroom's nuanced, open-ended perspective on an enduring marriage (which remains something of a mystery), Lantana will undoubtedly prove affecting to any couple that's reconciled after difficulties. All the overlapping stories and recurrent characters are fun to sort out, and the talented ensemble cast brings considerable acting muscle to the script's limited ideas.
An Australian who made his name here playing mooks and gangsters, LaPaglia shows fine restraint as the tough guy with a vulnerable side. Hershey is essentially a shrew undone by her own paranoia; hers is an unlikable character that she doesn't attempt to soften. The Oscar-winning Rush has the least showy part of the three leads, yet his bitter, weary, imploded John best illustrates Lantana's concern with the ongoing drama of marriage: It's not about the first-act blush of love but the hardened third-act survivors who have to clean up the mess and go on living. There are bodies to bury, lovers to mourn, and chances—perhaps grasped too late—to repair past wrongs.