Lost Chambers of the Heart

It’s a wonderful experience to sit in a movie theater, watch a film, and about halfway through, come to the realization that you’re having a truly satisfying time. Lantana does this to you by slowly, inexorably winding you into its narrative net by the accretion of deep, revealing, realistic character interplay. The fact that it features an excellent cast of such acting heavyweights as Anthony LaPaglia (Sweet and Lowdown) Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and Barbara Hershey (who needs no introduction) doesn’t hurt. But it is Australian writer Andrew Bovell’s script that lays the solid foundation for a drama of astonishing maturity, realism, and humanity. The film was adapted from his internationally produced play Speaking in Tongues, and adapted for the screen by Bovell himself. Bovell’s most famous previous screenplay was his collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann on the cult hit Strictly Ballroom — and these two works couldn’t be further apart in tone and style.

The story begins with Detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), who is having an affair as an almost reflexive response to the lack of passion in his own marriage. His wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), senses that something’s amiss, and her own response to the crisis is to seek the counsel of a therapist. The therapist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), has her own problems, as her marriage to husband John (Geoffrey Rush) has been under strain ever since the untimely murder of their daughter a decade ago. Leon’s affair is with Jane (Rachael Blake) a woman who is currently separated from her own husband, and who wants more from Leon than he is willing to give her. Jane’s neighbors, Paula and Nik notice Jane’s affair with Leon, and having been good friends with her and her husband, are also inexorably intertwined with her life.

These intricate associations at first function as an onscreen version of the Six Degrees of Separation game. But when one of the characters mysteriously disappears, Leon’s investigation pulls all of the strands of this intricate web taught, which places new strains upon all of their lives and relationships. The film’s title refers to the lantana vine, a tangled, flowering, thorny plant that grows in dense copses, and is also used as a visual metaphor for the characters’ complex associations.

The way in which the story unfolds is not only structurally fascinating, as each of the interconnections is revealed and deepened, but also brilliantly rewarding as we see the characters slowly implode from the pressures of their mid-life frustrations. It is LaPaglia, via the central character of Leon, who carries the dramatic weight of the film, and crafts a layered performance that reveals nuanced emotional turmoil and sensitivity beneath a layer of simmering male fury. Leon is a man skating on the razor’s edge of crisis, yet seems blind to the coming fall.

In counterpoint, Rush and Hershey deliver a study of quietly dignified disintegration as an older couple who have faked it for years to hide the pain of losing their child, but now find the thin veneer of their couplehood to be peeling away with age. Hershey’s therapist shares an irony with Leon, in that both are characters whose jobs are to solve other people’s problems — Leon through physical clues, Dr. Somers though emotional ones — yet both lack the insight to turn their powerful deductive faculties upon themselves.

This sharply intelligent, insightful script, tightly directed by Ray Lawrence (Bliss), is certainly one of the best films to come along in months. Drama this truthful and revealing of the human condition is rare, and does what great art should, which is make us reflect back upon our own lives. Lantana does so by exploring its characters’ failings, unfulfilled longings, and lives gone unexpectedly awry. And it does it superbly.