The film "Lantana" takes its name from a shrub that is categorized as a troublesome weed in Australia. In addition to having propagated virulently across the Australian countryside and being resistant to measures such as burning and slashing, its leaves and seeds can be fatally poisonous to cows and sheep. Like its namesake, "Lantana" unveils a web of human misery that spreads like wildfire in the aftermath of a murder. With a narrative reminiscent of films such as P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia", John Sayles' "City of Hope", and Atom Egoyan's "Exotica", "Lantana" follows the lives of ten characters as their lives criss-cross and the inter-relationships between them are revealed.
After a striking opening tracking shot through dense shrubbery that reveals a dead body, we are introduced to the principal players, all of whom lead uneventful and joyless lives. At the center is psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey of "The Pallbearer"), who still grieves over the murder of her daughter two years prior. Her marriage to John Knox (Geoffrey Rush of "Quills") is strained, and she suspects that he is involved with one of her patients, Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps of "Point Break"). Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong), another patient of Valerie's, also suspects that her police detective husband Leon (Anthony LaPaglia of "Autumn in New York") is unfaithful-- which turns out to be true, as he is involved with Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), who recently separated from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). Finally, there are the Daniels, Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniella Farinacci), who have three kids and live next door to the O'Mays. When one of these women disappears, Leon is assigned to the case, and his investigation becomes the nexus that joins these strangers together.
Though "Lantana" is set up like a murder mystery, uncovering 'whodunit' is not the endpoint. In fact, on its own, the murder mystery is weak, with a somewhat disappointing resolution. Instead, the murder is the framing device by which scribe Andrew Bovell (working from his own play "Speaking in Tongues") catalyzes the interaction between these characters, uncovers their broken psyches, and explores how such hidden pain can propagate in unexpected ways.
Backing up the intricately designed narrative is a collection of fine performances. Top kudos go to LaPaglia, who is effective as a cop who has become emotionally dead to the world, while both Hershey and Rush are memorable as a husband and wife who try very hard to hide their frailty and pain. Also worthy of mention are Armstrong's sympathetic portrayal of a betrayed spouse, and Colosimo and Farinacci as a seemingly happily married couple.
At last year's 43rd Australian Film & Television Awards, presented by the Australian Film Institute, "Lantana" beat "Moulin Rouge" by sweeping several categories, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Actress and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Thanks to such critical success, Lions Gate Pictures has now brought "Lantana" stateside, allowing North American audiences the chance to experience the emotional intrigue, brilliant script, and skilled performances of this remarkable film.