Another Australian cinema classic I always meant to watch for the last twenty years, Lantana is a moody and incisive examination of trust and fractured relationships, finely interweaving complex character drama with a police investigation.
I’m pretty clueless when it comes to plants, trees and all things botanical, and until this week I had no idea that the film’s title refers to an introduced species of flowering shrubs (pretty to look at but a nuisance for the native Australian flora). In the opening scene, a camera dives inside a lantana thicket and then tracks through the dense shrubbery to discover limbs of an unknown dead woman, a classic hook for a murder mystery used in countless cop shows.
The questions about the identity of the woman and how she met her end are answered during the next couple of hours, but though Lantana has all the conventional elements of a crime procedural, they feel secondary in a sprawling tale of four Sydney couples whose lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. This is a story of deceit, infidelity, secrets and loss, with almost all of the relationships either broken or on a verge of collapse.
The couple at the centre of the film, Leon and Sonja (Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong), seem to have everything on the surface but have grown distant. They each deal with the hollowness of their marriage in their own ways. He is having an affair with a separated woman named Jane (Rachel Blake), while she is secretly having sessions with Valerie (Barbara Hershey, an odd American out), a psychiatrist whose own marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) has been subsumed by grief after the death of their only daughter. Rounding up the quartet are Jane’s neighbours Paula and Nik (Daniella Farinacci and Vince Colosimo), the sole happy couple with small children; Nik is also a good friend of Jane’s estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins, who after years of Kath & Kim can’t help but make me chuckle whenever he’s introduced in anything, including a serious drama).
It’s to the film’s credit that its characters and their overlapping connections are always easy to follow, and that, with the exception of one coincidence that felt just a tad too cute, the characters’ lives become interconnected in ways that feel unforced. The script plays around with who knows who and why, and has fun subverting some of the expectations, with a subplot concerning Valerie’s gay client who is seeing a married man not panning out the way you’d predict.
Before the more traditional crime investigation kicks in the second half of the movie, we are drawn closely into the everyday lives of the characters, who all have something to hide and seem to exist within their own bubbles of solitary sadness. When honest conversations do happen, they are often so lacerating and full of pain they almost make you wince.
The cast, full of pedigree Australian actors, are all marvellously attuned to the nuances of their characters. LaPaglia, who has the most screentime, is particularly effective as a troubled, shut-off cop; Leon manages to remain sympathetic despite his infidelity and occasional violent outbursts. The score for Lantana likewise deserves a special mention: sometimes a score in a movie completely passes me by, but all throughout this film I was aware of the way its many strands were held together by the dark, atmospheric music.
Shot in Sydney, Lantana sidesteps the obvious, internationally renowned landmarks; its only shot of the Sydney Harbour is taken on a grey miserable day. Instead, it resolutely grounds itself in suburbia, humid summer nights and sounds of trilling insects. The movie was a huge success at home in Australia, which makes it an interesting anomaly when you consider it against the other successful homegrown films with a much broader appeal and way less arthouse sensibility. These days, it would probably go straight to a streaming service where it might have a modest success but nothing like the impact it had twenty years ago.