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"Lantana" begins with the camera making its furtive, disconcerting way through masses of the lush tropical shrubbery characterized by a particularly dense and thorny undergrowth that gives this impressive Australian film its name. It stops, finally, at a corpse, a corpse with a wedding ring we can see and a face we cannot.

Introduced this way, "Lantana" sounds as if it's going to be a thriller concerned with the identity of the corpse and how it got there. And in part it very much is. But what makes this film striking enough to win seven Australian Film Institute awards, including an unprecedented sweep of all four acting categories, is that it is something unexpectedly different as well. For just as much as "Lantana" is a police procedural replete with clues, evidence and suspects, it's also a thoughtful, complex psychological investigation into the nature and difficulties of marriages, particularly those in trouble.

Far from clashing, these two aspects reinforce each other, the excitement inherent in a crime story helping to animate and freshen a somber, serious, even melancholy "where love has gone" look at how connections and trust between spouses disintegrate from neglect, deception and happenstance. Everyone is complicit here, everyone is guilty of some emotional crime, though not necessarily of murder. As befits its nature, "Lantana" has an unusual genesis. It is based on a very theatrical play, "Speaking in Tongues," that for structural reasons writer Andrew Bovell thought would never make a film. But Ray Lawrence, Australia's top commercial filmmaker who hadn't directed a feature since 1986's award-winning "Bliss," thought it could, and after three years of collaboration between these two and producer Jan Chapman, a deeply involving piece of work emerged.

Sensitive, empathetic acting is necessary for the film's tricky concept to take hold, and, as those Australian awards indicate, "Lantana" certainly has it. The film focuses on four couples, and with a cast top-lined by Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey, it doesn't lack for the intensity and emotion to make its story convincing. If there is a key player in this drama it's LaPaglia, who was born in Australia but has been living and working in the U.S. for 20 years. He plays police detective Leon Zat, a dour man increasingly disappointed and overwhelmed by his life.

Leon mostly bottles up his fury, but his partner Claudia (Leah Purcell) notices. And he takes out his lack of connection with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and family by having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), recently separated from husband Pete (Glenn Robbins) but still close to the couple next door who used to be their best friends (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci).

Sonja, for her part, seeks support from therapist Valerie Sommers (Hershey), who is recovering from a trauma of her own: the murder of her 11-year old daughter. That has severely strained her marriage to John Sommers (Rush) as well as her relationships with patients like Patrick (Peter Phelps), a confrontational gay man.

All these people, some more directly than others, eventually figure in the story attached to that corpse. But though we eventually get the information we need, little of it comes to us directly. Rather, "Lantana" feeds us knowledge slowly and obliquely, until we're insinuated into the fabric of all these lives, intrigued by the notion that people who complain about the lack of connection can in reality be so connected to one another.

Trust, therapist Valerie tells one of her patients, "is vital to human relationships, but it is elusive." A remarkably thoughtful drama, "Lantana" makes it clear not only how hard to come by any emotional comfort is in this life, but more important, why we can't give up on the struggle.


MPAA rating: R, for language and sexuality. Times guidelines: moderately explicit sex scenes and intense adult subject matter.


Anthony LaPaglia...Leon

Geoffrey Rush...John

Barbara Hershey...Valerie

Kerry Armstrong...Sonja

Rachael Blake...Jane

An MBP, Australian Films Finance Corp., Jan Chapman Films presentation, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Ray Lawrence. Producer Jan Chapman. Executive producers Rainer Mockert, Mikael Borglund. Screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on his play "Speaking in Tongues." Cinematographer Mandy Walker. Editor Karl Sodersten. Costume designer Margot Wilson. Music Paul Kelly. Production designer Kim Buddee. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

In limited release.

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