Thunder from down under

Movie: Lantana

Our Rating: 4.00
"Lantana" is an Australian ensemble mystery in which everyone has a secret -- or appears to.

The chain of deceit begins with our de facto protagonist, Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia, whose down-under accent is no experiment: He's an Aussie by birth). A middle-aged cop with a dangerous temper, Leon is having an extramarital affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a lonely woman living out an uneasy separation from her husband. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), confesses her misgivings about her marriage to her therapist, Dr. Valerie Summers (Barbara Hershey), who has some scars of her own to deal with: Her daughter was murdered at the age of 11, and though that's hardly a secret -- Valerie has even written a book on the subject -- she privately frets that her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), is indulging unspeakable sexual desires.

Meanwhile, the flirtatious Jane runs afoul of her neighbor, Paula (Daniela Farinacci), who suspects that Jane has designs on her husband, Nik (Vince Colosimo). Further complicating matters, Jane's estranged spouse, Pete (Glenn Robbins), can't seem to leave her alone.

When one of these sad souls goes missing in the bushlands north of Sydney, the crossed wires that are their lives crackle to life with a fearsome electricity. For that charge to be felt at full voltage, we in the audience have to believe the fluke-ridden gambit that all of the movie's major players -- and some of its peripheral ones -- are connected in either a personal or a professional capacity. (Attorneys who view the film will have to stifle cries of "Conflict of interest! Conflict of interest!") Unlike most intersecting-lives dramas, however, "Lantana" meets its coincidences head-on, with a wink and a nudge that -- abetted by a compelling story and performances -- cajole us into playing along.

The film is surprisingly benign, remaining sympathetic to its characters in the thick of their most duplicitous dealings. Writer Andrew Bovell (who adapted the script from his play, "Speaking in Tongues") overreaches a bit by extending that Buscaglia-esque bent to every corner of his story: A police investigation comes to rely on the same blind trust the movie preaches as the salve for wounded relationships. Maybe it's an Australian thing, but I'd prefer my legal system to be ruled by a stricter principle than the benefit of the doubt. Still, there's something brave in a suspense film that dares to banish the very shadows on which it seems to depend.

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