(Ray Lawrence, Australia, 2001)


Few publicity tag lines are as enticing and powerful, in their effort to carve out a sophisticated niche market, as: "At last, a film for adults." Where Innocence (Paul Cox, 2000) won that market in Australia by focusing on the love lives of the geriatric set, Ray Lawrence's Lantana has achieved far greater local success by crafting what is squarely a midlife crisis movie. And, although it carefully slices a cross-section of classes, occupations, national-cultural backgrounds and lifestyles (in the equal opportunity mode of social representation made boringly prevalent in Australian drama), the style of therapy offered all the characters smacks of the kind of wisdom derived from the bourgeois, psychiatric couch.

There's even a psychiatrist, Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), at its centre. Her marriage to an equally buttoned-down professional, John (Geoffrey Rush), is held together solely by grief over their daughter, murdered some years earlier. And when mid-film, Valerie herself disappears in the night, a web of intrigue draws together a host of other characters, all of whom are equally skewered on the shards of bad or uncertain relationships: troubled cop Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and his dissatisfied wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong); feisty Jane (Rachael Blake) and her sullen, estranged husband, Pete (Glenn Robbins); their neighbours Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci); not to mention Valerie's angry, gay patient, Patrick (Peter Phelps) and Leon's pining law enforcement partner, Claudia (Leah Purcell).

Lantana oozes an unmistakeably New Age determination to avoid nastiness or sensationalism of any kind. In fact, most of its skill and ingenuity as a piece of storytelling is devoted to this single-minded task. Every generic expectation raised is defused either immediately or across the long haul of the narrative. Early on, Leon has twinges of heart pain; they come to nothing. The only moment of physical violence is an inadvertent collision between two joggers. Large issues involving likely murder, perversity and deceit are resolved in surprising ways that are psychologically illuminating but also morally chastising of the moviegoing mass: what did you really want to see behind that door, down that ditch, on the end of that phone line? The mystery element of the plot – labelling it a thriller, as some have, is purely wishful thinking – is deliberately attenuated to the point of banality.

In its criss-crossing, multi-character/multi-plot structure, Lantana recalls several of the most recently influential films of this type, such as Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999) and The Sweet Hereafter (1998). It falls into most of the typical traps of the form. It tends to be about too many, overly vague things – love, trust, vulnerability, family, secrets and lies – that are writ large in clumsy speeches like Valerie's book launch. The attempts to create rhymes between characters (particularly Valerie and Sonja) and patterns of similar incidents (such as violation of privacy) seem forced and occasionally unconvincing (as with Paula's unaccountable rage at Jane's clean-up of her lounge room). Worst of all, Lantana's mosaic structure is freighted with a facile rhetoric about the phenomenon of 'human connection': the kind of ersatz wisdom that declares coincidences, consequences and glimpses of other potential outcomes to be near-miraculous epiphanies when they are often merely basic, all-pervasive storytelling devices.

Lawrence's only previous film, Bliss (1985), was a strained exercise in surrealist weirdness, adapted from a novel by Booker Prize winner Peter Carey. Lantana offered Lawrence (as he avows) an escape route from a 'cinema of images' – and from the slickness of his longtime work as a top TV ad director – into character-driven drama. (The current modishness of this suspect phrase is becoming highly annoying: would Hitchcock, Renoir or Lubitsch have ever described their films as exclusively character-driven?) And the performances he elicits from the members of his ensemble here (especially LaPaglia and Blake) are, for the most part, admirably pitched and modulated.

Within only a few months of its Australian commercial release, Lantana won virtually every award it is possible to win, and proved a surprise box office hit with the same local audiences that shunned more ambitious (and better) arthouse fare like Clara Law's The Goddess of 1967 (2000) and Shirley Barrett's Walk the Talk (2000). Lawrence and writer Andrew Bovell (adapting his 1998 play Speaking in Tongues) have managed to capture the large middlebrow audience whose essential cultural reference points are not cinema (local or otherwise) but mainstream theatre and 'quality TV' programs such as This Life from the UK.

And, on every level, Lantana is a televisual film. Stylistically, it's widescreen TV – static, cavernous frames of people talking (especially in the psychiatry scenes). Lawrence and DOP Mandy Walker cite Cassavetes, Loach and von Trier as their influences, but the result is strictly mise en scène 101, as in the moments when John externalises his withdrawal by twisting his body or turning his back altogether to escape whoever is trying to crack his emotional armour. Content-wise, it is very much like a standard TV soap: married couples struggling with kids, infidelities, deceptions and accidents in a small, close-knit community. Except that soaps – the everyday version of the multi-character form – don't usually come with such a solemn, portentous schtick about the mysterious lines that connect us all.

© Adrian Martin November 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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