How rare is it that a play, whose characters are bound by the walls of the theatre, can be opened out into a worthwhile film? And how much rarer is it that the film can keep every nuance of each character and yet breathe into them the air that only a cinema screen can give? The Australian film "Lantana," made by director Ray Lawrence from Andrew Bovell's play "Speaking in Tongues," is that rarest of all artworks; it succeeds both as character study and as cinema.
The film opens with a slow tracking shot through dense underbrush. Where are we? What are we looking for? We come upon a woman's corpse, flung down in the jungle scrub like a doll. Will this be a murder mystery? Yes, in a sense it is, but the solution will not be what we expect. What we get in this marvelous film is a set of interlocking relationships, brought together, and brought out into the light, by the woman's death. But at the start only we know she is dead. Her body has not yet been found, and so this case of a missing person is assigned to Detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a furious, tightly-bound man who is cheating on his wife, is unable to relate to his sons, is so angry that he beats a prisoner, crashes into another jogger one morning and swings away at the man, and fights off chest pains by denying them.
His wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), unable to break through that wall, goes to psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), whose own demons began with the murder of her 11-year-old daughter a few years ago; she has coped with the loss by writing a best-selling book about it. Her husband John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), a law school dean, has withdrawn from her ever since, into a distant passivity - so much so that when one of Valerie's patients, a gay man, tells her about his current lover who is married, she suspects that it is her husband.
There is still more: Jane (Rachael Blake), recently separated, is the woman with whom Leon is having an affair. He can barely acknowledge it: he says it is "A one-night stand that happened twice." Jane's next-door neighbors Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniella Farinacci), the only truly happy couple in the film, with their three adorable children, may have a role to play in the disappearance of the woman.
And then we find out that the missing woman is Valerie; Leon suspects John, who is interested only in parrying Leon's implications and not defending himself. Why? And what will happen when, in the course of the investigation, Leon must deal with Jane, who has important information?
If I have made this sound like a Marx Brothers tragedy, or a bad soap opera, I assure you it is nothing of the kind. We are fascinated and touched by these people, who have been drawn with a complexity that gives them plenty of life, and they are enacted with exquisite delicacy. We even meet three of them at a tango class (Bovell wrote "Strictly Ballroom"), whose sexy instructor is a temptation to Sonja. At the same time Leon's detective partner Claudia (Leah Purcell) is a voice for reason and logic. Everything works, and nothing is overdone. And though the mystery is solved, it is the least important event in the film. "Lantana" swept last year's Australian film awards, justifiably. It is a superb film.