By Indiewire | Indiewire December 13, 2001 at 2:00AM
REVIEW: "Lantana" Grows Down Under; Superb Cast Cultivates Aussie Thriller
by Peter Brunette
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Peter Brunette reviewed "Lantana" during this year's Toronto Film Festival, the Lion's Gate will open the film tomorrow (Friday)]
Ray Lawrence's "Lantana," the closing night offering at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an eminently watchable, but not particularly memorable thriller from Australia. The title refers to a kudzu-like weed that proliferates Down Under (at least according to my Oxford English Dictionary, where I had to look it up), whose alternate name is "the wayfaring tree," a perfectly apt metaphor for all the sexual wandering featured in the film. A superb cast -- many of whom are drawn from Australian television -- keep the viewer more or less fully invested in "Lantana's" affective dynamics, but their efforts are finally defeated by a tepid exploration of adultery that offers few new insights into this primeval temptation, and a soap-opera plot that is riddled (perhaps purposely, which would be worse) with a string of unbelievable coincidences.
The first half of the film lays out the emotional territory. Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) is a restless, sometimes brutal detective who is cheating on his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) with Jane (Rachel Blake), who is separated from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) is a law professor married to Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), a psychiatrist. Their marriage has been in shambles since the murder of their 11-year-old daughter two years earlier, but Valerie, to John's dismay, has coped by writing a best-selling book about the experience. Valerie, one of whose patients just happens to be Sonja Zat, suspects that husband John is betraying her with one of her male patients. She begins to have a nervous breakdown and during her headlong flight through Sydney's teeming streets, runs into and verbally abuses Pete (see above), whom she doesn't know. To recuperate from this upsetting experience, Pete stops into a bar, where a stranger, Leon (see above again), buys him a drink. The film continues in this barely credible vein until Valerie turns up missing (the last person to have seen her, by the way, is Jane's hunky neighbor Nik [Vince Colosimo], whom she's had her eye on since Leon abandoned her.) The second half of the film centers, for the most part, on Leon's investigation into Valerie's disappearance. (After all, who else could be put on the case?)
Anthony LaPaglia, who played Sim Rosedale, the recipient of anti-Semitic disdain in "House of Mirth," is always convincing as a troubled tough guy who is himself on the verge of cracking up, and Kerry Armstrong, who plays his loyal but aggrieved wife, has a chin that twitches magnificently when she's upset. Barbara Hershey is forceful and committed as always, and still lovely after all these years, though Geoffrey Rush, as usual, sucks all the energy right off the screen. Could he be the most overrated actor currently working?) The thin and WASP-y Rachel Blake, as the promiscuous Jane, is sexy without being glamorous, which seems exactly right for the role.
Director Lawrence fills the visual and aural tracks of the film with appropriately foreboding images and a haunting musical score. Moving his camera through the dense underbrush of lantana, he creates a clotted, clinging feeling that hovers menacingly over all the doomed spouse-swapping of the story. The film also contains a couple of moments of real power, as when Leon illicitly plays the audio tape of his wife's therapy session with Valerie; here the sense of violation is powerfully elemental. Nevertheless, Lawrence, too, is ultimately defeated by the competent but trivial script crafted by Andrew Bovell from his play. Character motivations -- outside of general human restlessness -- are never very clear spelled out, and the silly series of coincidences have the unfortunate effect of forcibly ejecting viewers from whatever suspension of disbelief they have managed to attain.
Ultimately, we are left wondering whether we've learned anything about the human species that we really want to know or didn't know already.
[Peter Brunette, who contributes frequently to the Boston Globe, has written a number of books on Italian cinema and film theory.]