Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence and written by Andrew Bovell adapting his own play, Speaking in Tongues, seems at first glance to be too much the chick-flick — a talking-about- relationships movie so full to bursting with compassion that you can hardly stand it. But closer inspection reveals an intricately plotted drama which has combined, rather bizarrely it might seem, talking-about-relationships with one of the great cinematic clichés of our time, the burnt-out cop. As is so often the case when the clichés of the American cinema fall into Australian hands, the result is something that manages to look quite new, its very strangeness allowing us to see familiar problems with fresh eyes.
With the gruesome opening scene of a woman’s body being found among the lantana bushes outside Sydney (lantana is an Aussie shrub with lush green foliage on the outside and sharp thorns underneath it), we might expect something more familiar. But from there we take up the story of one of the investigating officers, the burnt-out case mentioned above, who is called Leon (Anthony LaPaglia). He is married to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) but is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a separated woman whom he has met in the salsa dancing classes he attends with his wife. We catch a glimpse of Leon and Sonja in dance class. The Instructor tries to push the married couple together: “Leon,” he says, “this is about sex; it’s about a man and a woman joined groin to groin. Get it?” But Leon doesn’t get it, apparently. He continues to dance morosely as if he’d rather be doing anything else.
Yet he doesn’t love Jane and does love his wife. Later he explains to the latter the reason for the affair as having to do with the fact that he can’t feel anything. He is numb. It has, perhaps, something to do with his job. Two or three times, however, we see him doubled up with chest pains, though he insists that he doesn’t have a weak heart. Here is a man, we realize, who refuses to acknowledge his own feelings in ways familiar from other portraits of strong, silent, “macho” men, but in this film all the other main characters are doing the same thing. It is a film about “denial,” about secrets and lies — both the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves, and we cannot be aware of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of our emotional lives.
Sonja is attending regular therapy sessions with Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), to whom she confesses that she suspects her husband of having an affair. She says it’s not the affair she minds but the deception. She doesn’t know it is Jane that her husband is sleeping with. Next door to Jane lives her best friend, Paula (Daniella Farinacci) and her husband Nik (Vince Colosimo) who have two small children. Nik is unemployed and Paula has to work long hours as a nurse to make ends meet. Nik looks after the kids. He wonders whether or not to tell his mate Pete (Glenn Robbins), Jane’s husband, that she is seeing somebody, even though Pete still wants to save the marriage. Paula tells him to keep his mouth shut. Pete himself appeals to Nik: “You’d tell me wouldn’t you?” Nik says he would but he doesn’t.
Another of the psychiatrist’s patients, Patrick (Peter Phelps), tells her that he is having an affair with a married man and he wonders, “Wouldn’t his wife know?”
“It depends on how good he is at deceiving her,” she answers.
“Or how good she is at deceiving herself,” he adds. Later, when she tells him that no relationship can be based on deceit, Patrick replies: “Most marriages are based on that, Valerie. I think some women prefer to live with the lie.” Meanwhile, we are being given glimpses into the marriage of Dr. Somers herself to John (Geoffrey Rush). Their young daughter has recently been murdered and the doctor has tried to manage her grief by turning it into therapeutic lessons. We hear her speech promoting the book she has written on the subject — dedicated to John, “who taught me to trust again” — where she makes the murder into an answer to the question of “What to believe in. . . Can we believe in love? Can we feel safe in it? Loving someone means we have to relinquish power. . . Trust is as essential to relationships as love to human life, and just as elusive.” Yet it is clear that she and John are living in separate worlds, because of their different styles of grieving, and don’t trust each other at all. She persuades herself that the married man Patrick is sleeping with is John.
Got all that? One night as Valerie is driving home on a lonely road, her car runs off the road. She tries to call John but he does not answer. She flags down a passing vehicle — and disappears. Through a series of coincidences that begin with her disappearance, Leon’s investigation of it and Nik’s arrest for her abduction, everybody’s secrets are revealed. Mistrust has destroyed, or nearly destroyed every relationship in the film except that of Nik and Paula, who is fiercely loyal to her husband and does not believe for a moment that he is guilty. Here and in the tentative attempts of Leon and Sonja to repair their marriage, the film is not only about denial but also about affirmation. And the cumulative sense of this series of vignettes of relationships damaged or broken by lack of trust is of something profoundly true about men and women, and maybe burnt-out cops as well.