Written by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Ray Lawrence
Ray Lawrence took sixteen years off between his first and second films. His career seems to coincide with the two peaks in international interest in Australian cinema in the last forty years. In the 1980s, there was a sudden spike of interest in the United States around Australian media. Directors like Peter Weir and actors like Mel Gibson became hot commodities. Crocodile Dundee was a pretty massive phenomenon in the States. Even bizarre comedies like Young Einstein starring the comedic actor Yahoo Serious had their moment in the spotlight. Lawrence’s Bliss came out in 1985 and never really swept up Americans, but it was definitely given a high stature in Australia. Jump to 2001, as a new wave of Australian films begins capturing the attention of audiences, and Lawrence gives us the highest-grossing movie in Australian history, Lantana.
The opening shot of Lantana shows a woman’s bloody body caught up in the titular plant. We can’t see her face, and we don’t know how she got here. We jump back a few days and find Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), a police detective having sex with Jane in a hotel room. They are married to other people, and Leon met Jane when he and his wife Sonja began attending Latin dance classes. Jane is separated from her husband and wants to pursue Leon, but he’s emotionally distant from everyone, caught up in his confusion over feeling broken while trying to maintain a tough male facade. Sonja sees a therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), where she talks about her troubles with Leon.
Meanwhile, Valerie’s personal life is distraught. Years earlier, her eleven-year-old daughter was murdered, and to cope, Valerie wrote a book about the experience. Her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) has drifted further from her since then, and they barely see each other anymore. A new patient, Patrick, seems to antagonize Valerie with his stories of having an affair with a married man. His insinuations cause Valerie to believe he’s talking about John, and Patrick is trying to confront her indirectly about it. All of these stories become twisted and tangled together, leaving their participants unmoored by the end, trying to reach out and not sure what happens to them next. And in some instances, they are left entirely alone when intimacy is gone & trust crumbles.
Lantana’s title comes from an invasive plant species that is relatively widespread in the Sydney suburbs. It is a brightly flowered bush on the exterior, but underneath it’s a twisting woody bramble. In the film, it becomes a metaphor for marriage as each couple may appear fine from the outside but hide years of trouble from the friends and acquaintances. Lawrence takes his time with each character, and he has a preference for short to the point scenes. The dead body isn’t hinted at until the midpoint of the two-hour film.
Instead of getting wrapped up in an investigatory narrative, Lawrence goes back to some of the themes he explored in Bliss. He’s interested in how two people who can be as intimate as humans are capable of being, having children together, can suddenly feel like complete strangers. He never seeks to do an autopsy and figure out why. In some ways, that is unknowable even to the people who experience that break. Lawrence wants to see how these characters handle living on this precipice of mending things or ending these relationships. The couples barely communicate, and when they do, we can feel the veneer they both put up.
Trust is a significant element in the story, and almost every character breaks trust with another at some point in the film. Jane’s estranged husband stops by while she is out, and a neighbor, who has seen Leon leave her house, tells him she hasn’t been seeing anyone. John tells Valerie he’s working late, and she and the audience assume he’s having an affair, while the third act reveals will likely surprise viewers. That’s another theme running through the story, assumption. The narrative is structured with precise “fade to black” moments that we inevitably fill in with what we expect from films. Lawrence starts teaching us near the end of the second act that much of what we have assumed is wrong, and we realize how myopically we judge others.
Lantana is an incredibly well written, shot, and acted film. The American studios seem more interested in making very broadly appealing spectacle movies, and even when they attempt a drama, it feels pretty surface level. Lantana was a film I watched in my twenties, and I didn’t really get it, but now that I am turning forty this year, it resonates so much more. Now I understand the work it takes to keep a marriage together, how dangerous it can feel to be so intimate, how culture pressures men to have certain behaviors. Though it may have taken Ray Lawrence sixteen years to decide on making this his second feature, it was well worth the wait.