By James Madden
First viewings can be overrated. Fairly frequently, I fall in love with a film upon a second viewing. Lantana was one of those experiences. I was a touch too young to see Lantana in its theatrical release. Sure, I could have done so, but at the tender age of 13, Jim Carrey comedies shone brighter on my radar. That is not to say that I hadn’t heard about Lantana. It was so critically acclaimed that upon release at the local video store (at a time not too long ago where videos could still be hired), I instantly snatched it up. After all, I had grown into a mature and worldly 14-year-old by that point.
Genius! An instant classic! Breathtaking Australian cinema at it’s finest! These were words I had heard sung from the heavens by not only critics and through promotional television soundbites, but from close family members too. For me, however, it just simply flew over my head. It wasn’t until the second viewing where I fell deeply and passionately in love.
Like the wild shrub that it is named after, Lantana offers an interconnected vine of characters that are quickly growing out-of-control within their own environment. Though the lantana weed is considered a pest, it also contains simple and beautiful flowers within its thorny vines. This analogy is not lost, and speaks volumes for the characters within the story.
Adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell, based on his play Speaking in Tongues, Lantana presents a multi-strand narrative consisting of four couples in a contemporary Australian setting. Not all couples belong to the same social class, however . The unemployed Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his wife Paula (Daniella Farinacci), a nurse, are working class. Their neighbours Jane (Rachael Blake) and Pete (Glenn Robbins) are lower-middle class with seemingly more money, while detective Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and his teacher wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) are middle class. Psychiatrist and author Valerie (Barbara Hershey) and her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), an academic, have enough money to live in a spacious home with a spectacular view.
Each character is caught in moments of quiet, suburban desperation. The underbelly of modern suburbia is not a novel concept, but underpinning this theme is a mystery motif. The opening images present a woman’s body lying apparently motionless amongst the tangled vines of the lantana weed. A connection is later made to the disappearance of psychiatrist Valerie Somers, who never made it home after she ran her car off the road. As the film progresses, the mystery slowly unravels, but in an unusual style. Valerie doesn’t even disappear until half way through the film. Up until then, the principal characters are increasingly intertwining.
Leon begins an affair with Jane after meeting in dance class, while his marriage to Sonja continues to sour. Sonja’s sessions with Valerie reveal the deep connections missing in both of their lives, as the story then follows Valerie home. Her life is surrounded by agonising grief after the murder of her 11-year-old daughter only two years beforehand. Not coping well with the grief, Valerie and husband John are also drifting further apart. Even in the confines of their car, their detachment is obvious.
Having not made a feature film since Bliss in 1985, Ray Lawrence made a big return with Lantana. Lawrence articulates the disintegration of relationships most marvellously and effectively well through use of space and proximity. John and Valerie rarely look at each other while on screen. Their days are spent commuting back and forth from work in the car, where they avoid face to face contact. Barbara Hershey is particularly compelling when Valerie emotionally breaks down in a phone booth. Catching the answering machine, Valerie initially lets John know of her car troubles. After two more phone calls, she psychologically collapses and details her pain. As Valerie opens up, the vast distance becomes strikingly apparent and is in direct contrast to the estrangement that occurs daily within an arm’s length.
Meanwhile, Rachael Blake creates an atypical character in Jane. Cast as the “other woman”, Jane could be seen as a Fatal Attraction-type temptress, bordering on the lines of psychotic stalker. Instead, a portrait of an unhappy housewife is shaped. Jane lives an unfulfilled life, where dreams occupy her reality, as she dances along to Cuban music in her living room with a glass of vodka in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There is a moment where it seems she may become the needy, stereotypical adulteress, but instead she shies back into her insular fantasy world.
As an ensemble, the cast is as good as it gets. While I’ve singled out Hershey and Blake, each key actor could easily be commended on their brilliant portrayals. Impressive chemistry exudes freely and each performance is astonishing. Even the supporting actors are terrific despite little screen time, with noteworthy performances from Leah Purcell, Peter Phelps and Russell Dykstra.
Paul Kelly’s score adds a necessary element of mystery, as well as providing a contemporary suburban foundation. A Cuban/Salsa flavour is added and is most effectively utilised within the final scene as Celia Cruz sings “Te Busco”. Each character is presented in their current and unsure state. While the future may be hopeful, it is anything but certain, and as Leon and Sonja dance, this becomes painfully clear.
About James Madden: James Madden has written for a slew of student newspapers/magazines and online publications including Portable, Upstart and X and Y magazine. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. James founded Film Blerg in 2009 where he continues to slave away and will be a Screen Editor for Farrago magazine in 2012. Many of his inane ramblings can be found here as well as on Twitter @FilmBlerg.
Editor’s Note: More on Lantana
In 2011 AFI | AACTA hosted special ten-year Anniversary Screenings of Lantana in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by Q&A sessions with key cast and crew members. The Melbourne screening of Lantana involved discussion with the film’s producer Jan Chapman and actors Vince Colosimo and Kerry Armstrong. You can watch highlights below, and while the lighting is atrocious, the sound is excellent, and their reminiscences about the production process are fascinating and illuminating.
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