Lantana Review – Twenty Years On, Ray Lawrence’s Film Becomes a Reflective Drama for Our Current Times

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I finally got around to watching Lantana. Released in 2001, this is a tragi-romance which surrounds an ensemble of couples whose relationships are either withering or dead. The pandemic taught me not to desire touch or seek intimacy, as we were mandated by the government to disengage in such activities, and it felt like Lantana was pertinent for this reason.

Leon (Anthony Lapaglia) is a police detective engaging in an affair and appears incapable of finding pleasure in any physical intimacy. After famous psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey) goes missing, it becomes Leon’s responsibility to discover the perpetrator without invading his own personal deviances. Ten years since its release Lantana demonstrates that the detachment of life, central to the film, is still relevant.

Fronted by Anthony LaPaglia, Lantana boasts a cast of heavyweight Australian actors (Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Armstrong, Vince Colosimo and Rachael Blake) in an ensemble drama reminiscent of Robert Altman’s sprawling films like Nashville. Lantana revolves around the concept of trust and its importance in maintaining love in both professional and platonic relationships. The second movie from English-born Australian-based director Ray Lawrence, whose small filmography demonstrates care in the projects he selects. The screenplay was written by Andrew Bovell from an earlier theatrical play entitled “Speaking in Tongues,” a riff on the divulgence of each of the characters. Bovell’s theatrical background were demonstrated visually throughout the film not least in the static and visibly staged driving scenes.

The sombre tone of the film is evocatively captured by cinematographer Mandy Walker who has since become a champion in Hollywood and key collaborator of Baz Luhrmann. The loneliness of each of the characters is emphasised through the scarcity of two-shots portraying intimate partners at the same time. The sex scenes are shown through separate closeups of both partners showing the individuality of the characters. The slow zooms, almost to a suspicious pace, incorporated throughout but particularly during the psychiatric consultations caused a degree of detachment as well.

The film uses tropes of the detective movie in order to focus on the romances of each of the central couples in the movie. In choosing to craft a screenplay in this style, Bovell doesn’t achieve the success of the detective genre due to the screenplay’s hybridity as a romance and cop film. This is shown through the central conflict of the characters being internalised. Leon’s stasis isn’t shifted by solving crimes through his job, it’s altered by shifting the way he thinks about himself. Thus, the traditional ploy of a great cop film of the twist at the end, isn’t apparent. The clues and mystery surrounding Valerie’s disappearance are only ever second hand to the driving conflict within each of the characters.  

Leon’s middle-class ennui and his romantic alienation from wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) holds resemblance to Kevin Spacey’s portrayal as Lester Burnham in Sam Mendes’ film American Beauty, released around the same time. The “man-with-everything-and-nothing” is a worn stereotype but it seems this period produced a gamut of such characters. The surreal and erotic tone of the film mixed with the tropes of a noir meant the film also carried similarities to David Lynch’s oeuvre, particularly his then recently released Mulholland Drive. This was evoked through the lighting and mysterious unease portrayed out in the Sydney suburbs. Lynch’s focus on psychosis was portrayed here, particularly through the character of Valerie whose stability is shattered after the death of her daughter leaving her and husband John (Geoffrey Rush) grief-stricken. 

The early 2000s are memorable for a variety of reasons not least the kitsch style they seemed to proliferate. Lantana capitalises on this aesthetic and it’s particularly evident through the soundtrack scored by singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. The score feels out of place due to its lack of intensity and its reliance on emphasising emotional hollowness rather than the action portrayed on screen. At times it felt like scenes were straight from an elevator muzak jingle. A more bass and drum kick heavy score would have been appropriate. 

An issue with ensemble cast dramas is that often scenes can encompass too large a number of speaking roles leaving the audience without attachment to the driving protagonist in the scene. Lantana counteracted this by providing a perfectly sealed hermeneutic diegesis through which the action was believable and constantly resonated with the viewer. This was particularly shown through the montage scene as different characters witness the same news report in different environments. Perhaps Bovell’s theatrical roots provided this tightness but it was very refreshing. This balanced hermeneutic world linked back to the film’s focus on desensitisation and numbness well, and twenty years on in the midst of a pandemic where the sensation of touch is cursed holds relevance today.

Director: Ray Lawrence

Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Vince Colosimo, Rachael Blake

Writer: Andrew Bovell (based on his play, Speaking in Tongues)

Editing: Karl Sodersten

Cinematography: Mandy Walker

Score: Paul Kelly

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