Love Down Under 

*Lantana (R)
Lion's Gate

Lantana is the name of an invasive flowering shrub with a dense, thick undergrowth. In this film's long opening shot, we see its delicate flowers and glossy leaves, then the tangled web beneath and, finally, obscured in the brush, the dead body of an unidentified woman.

It's a fine piece of foreshadowing. And it's a credit to Lantana's taut and intricately structured screenplay, adapted from a stageplay by writer Andrew Bovell, that as soon as the camera shifts to the next scene, a humping and bumping sex scene between two middle-aged adults, we completely forget about the dead body.

Lantana is not a thriller, in spite of its central mystery. It's a psychological drama about adult relationships, loyalty, grief, infidelity, disillusionment, existential crisis and, of course, love. It's Australian, directed by Ray Lawrence (Bliss). At its center is Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), a beefy police officer who's having an affair (a "two-night stand") with Jane (Rachael Blake), a lonely housewife who has recently separated from her husband. Leon's wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) doesn't know about the affair, but is unhappy with Leon and seeks solace from Valerie (Barbara Hershey), a psychotherapist. Valerie's marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) has also grown distant and cold since the murder of their child a few years back, and in her therapy sessions with people unhappy in love, she begins to suspect that John is cheating on her.

If all of this sounds tawdry, be assured it's not. Lantana shows us people as they really live -- on the surface, going through the motions, their sorrow deeply buried. Leon frets momentarily when his 16-year-old son won't kiss him goodbye in the morning -- a touching little hint at his sweetness -- then brutally pummels a suspected drug dealer in a moment of out-of-control rage. Sonja has become so practiced at putting on a good face that she smiles sweetly when she reveals to her shrink that she believes her husband is cheating on her. Valerie wears her grief like a death mask, but never misses a beat in her busy professional life.

Eventually, as in the much longer and messier American film Magnolia, all of these characters' and a couple of others' lives intersect at the edges. And eventually we find out which woman ends up dead, beneath the lantana. All the while, we are treated to superb acting, intelligent dialogue, an intriguing plot, fetching camera work and subtle direction. Lantana refreshes the viewer with its emotional honesty and entertains with real visual flair. It's an accomplished adult film with people of substance at its core -- a rarity in current cinema. Highly recommended.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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