Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
Ray Lawrence is incredibly frustrating as a director. His first feature film, Bliss, was released in 1985. His second, Lantana, was released in 2001. Let me put that into a little bit of perspective for you. When Ray Lawrence’s first film came out, I was graduating from high school. When his second film came out, I had been married for 10 years. If Lantana is any indication, Lawrence has a steady eye and a great aptitude for storytelling. How frustrating then that his output is something like a film every 10 years. It’s as if he went to the Terrence Malick school of film releases. We can hope that eventually he’ll hit a massive creative spurt like Malick, who currently has three films in post.
Regardless, Lantana is one of that strange subsets of dramas that concerns groups of people loosely connected who suddenly find themselves dramatically influencing each other’s lives. The most obvious comparison here is with something like Short Cuts or Magnolia, and those two are the ones most commonly cited when looking at Lantana. There’s a pseudo-Short Cuts connection also in that Lawrence’s third film, Jindabyne, is a fuller exploration of one of the stories used in Altman’s film. Regardless, what we have here is an event that affects the lives of four married and divorced couples. For me, that means a very difficult summary in trying to keep it all straight.
The easiest way to do this is not to start at the beginning, but at the event that seems to bring everyone together in some respect. Noted psychologist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) disappears one night and is presumed dead or kidnapped. She and her husband (Geoffrey Rush) have been having significant marital problems since the murder of their young daughter. Valerie is the psychologist currently treating Sonya Zat (Kerry Armstrong), wife of Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), the police detective assigned the missing persons case of Dr. Somers. Leon is having a short affair with Jane O’May (Rachael Blake), who attends the same salsa dancing class as the Zats. She is separated from her husband and lives next door to Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula D’Amato (Daniella Farinacci). And, as it turns out, Nik was the last person to see Dr. Valerie Somers alive. However, the initial suspect is Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), another of her patients. Patrick has admitted to having a homosexual affair with a married man, something that he seems to think has caused her to judge him harshly.
Got all that?
Where Lantana really shines is in setting all of this up. The disappearance that serves as the central focus of the film and the catalyst for everyone finding out about the existence of everyone else happens mid-way through the film. The first half is spent establishing all of the various relationships and the characters themselves. This is time critically spent. When, during the course of his investigation, we see Leon Zat surreptitiously steal the tape recording of Dr. Somers’s session with his wife, it’s not surprising. More importantly, we know exactly why he has done it—it’s not out of maliciousness, but desperation to save his failing marriage.
All in all, Lantana is made with beautifully tight control. We get nothing before we need it, and nothing that we get seems out of place. The characters are perfectly natural and believable at all places. We get exactly why they act the way they do. It’s wonderful to see this sort of three-dimensionality in film, and particularly in a film like this one that is entirely character-driven for the first half, and continues to be at least partially character-driven as it rides to the end.
Are there parts that are a little obvious? Sure, of course there are. The salsa dancing is the one that stands out to me more than anything—the way the characters dance together at different times very much indicates the varying states of their relationship. It’s a little too on the nose, but in the context of the film where such shorthand is sometimes necessary, it works as well as it can.
More than anything, if Lantana is the indication of what Ray Lawrence is capable of, it’s a damn shame that his output is so few and far between.
Why to watch Lantana: It unfolds beautifully.
Why not to watch: Ray Lawrence needs to do more.