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Chance encounters
A region 2 DVD review of LANTANA by Slarek
 
"But don't you want to cry sometimes?"
"Well, yeah, but...you don't, do you."

 

Some twelve or so years ago I stumbled by chance upon an Australian movie called Bliss in my local video store, which in those days was run by a cheery couple who, despite a willingness to stock less well known and independently minded films, had little time for most of them. The female half of this couple, whose name I cannot remember, groaned when I took the film to the counter. Having become used to her rigidly mainstream tastes, I took this as a good sign. What unfolded was an extraordinary, distinctly individualistic drama that began with a heart attack and ended with a remarkably moving eulogy from the daughter of the likeably oddball lead character. I'd never seen anything quite like it. Less than a week later I insisted a friend of mine see the film and we went along to the video shop to rent it. As we reached the counter I was once again confronted by the good lady owner, who looked at the tape in distaste, then said to my friend, "He's not going to make you watch this shit too, is he?" That's the sort of effect Ray Lawrence's film had and perhaps that all good non-conformist films should have, polarising audiences, producing passionate responses both for and against. I was delighted to discover that the film still looked great the second time round (my friend loved it, by the way). I couldn't wait to see what Mr. Lawrence would do next. As it turned out, I had to, and for quite some considerable time. It was to be an astonishing sixteen years after the release of Bliss before his second film would surface. So was it worth that wait? Most definitely, yes.

Lantana opens with the camera prowling over the plants of the title, accompanied by the increasingly shrill cry of insects, then burrows beneath and comes to rest on the clearly dead body of an anonymous woman. This almost Lynchian sequence of intrigue and suggested menace (accentuated by the low piano notes of the music score) is actually a non-linear signpost to things to come, for the death in question does not occur until halfway into the film and will prove a key event not so much for the hows and whys of what took place, but for the varied effects it will have on the lives of the story's main protagonists.

Police detective Leon Zat has reached middle age and is at an emotional dead end, something he is attempting to combat by having an affair with Jane, a woman he met through a dance class he reluctantly attends with his wife. Jane has recently separated from her still hopeful husband Pete and now flirts with next-door neighbour Nick, which Nick's trusting wife Paula sees just as playful friendship. Leon's wife Sonja, meanwhile, is attempting to make sense of her own feelings about their relationship by visiting renowned psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Somers, a woman whose own marriage to husband John has grown cold since the murder of her daughter two years earlier.

As with Paul Thomas Anderson's magesterial Magnolia, Ray Lawrence's second film is a multi-character story with more than a passing interest in chance and coincidence. But it's there that the similarity ends – Lantana is very different in its style and approach, far more low-key than Anderson's almost epic drama, a film about ordinary suburban couples trying to deal with relationships in stagnation and decline. The first half introduces us to the characters, their lives and how they are connected, not through expository dialogue but the way they talk to each other, the looks they exchange and even how they carry themselves. This alone makes for disarmingly compelling drama, but following the disappearance and assumed death of one of their number, things move up a notch, differently heightening the emotional state of each person and forcing them to deal with individual issues head on in often open and confrontational ways. Remarkably, the investigation itself never seems as important as the human drama, and so it is highly appropriate that the explanation for what actually happened proves somewhat straightforward – this is not a whodunnit and the audience is not required to engage in frantic guesswork.

Written by Andrew Bovell, the screenplay was based on his own play Speaking in Tongues, and one of the film's many strengths is that you'd need to be told that to realise it – never for a second does it feel like a filmed stage play. Despite the low-key direction, this is a very cinematic experience. The action is spread over a wide variety of evocative locations, actors express emotions through facial expression rather than gestures or histronics, and key conversations take place at tables, in gardens, in doorways and in cars, the significance of which does not really register until a second or third viewing. Visually and aurally the film is consistently seductive, with Mandy Walker's scope photography taking advantage of modern high speed film stocks to shoot almost exclusively by available light, creating a carefully composed look that is nonetheless rooted convincingly in reality.

The detail and layering is way more complex than it first appears. Seemingly non story-related moments all prove to be relevant later, with a violent collision between a jogging Leon and an unsuspecting shopper prompting a verbal assault that reduces the shopper to tears, an incident that later prompts a throwaway remark in a washroom that reverberates powerfully in the film's final scenes. Everything and everyone is connected, sometimes in co-incidental or unexpected ways, which comes together most memorably in a genuinely hilarious moment when Leon, following up a lead, has to knock on a door that....no, you need to see this to appreciate it.

A great drama needs actors who can sell it as real and boy do they deliver here. Anthony La Paglia is terrific as Leon, his weary expressions and body language suggesting with every step that he feels he being emotionally crushed by his life. As his wife Sonja, Kerry Armstrong matches him on every level, required as she is to present a cheery day-to-day demeanour but still show signs of the emotional frailty that is hovering just beneath the surface, something she does so convincingly during her sessions with Valerie Somers. As the most affluent couple of the group, seasoned performers Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush are just right, having a tiredness to their faces that says so much about their true feelings for each other; Rush in particular delivers a quietly superb performance, conveying volumes with an expression or the intonation of his voice. Vince Colosimo and Daniella Farinacci make an utterly believable working-class couple, the one pair whose relationship really can stand the ultimate test, and as their flirtatious neighbour Jane, Rachael Blake creates a very sympathetic and fully rounded character out of someone who could so easily have been unlikable or clichéd. Particularly nice is that all of the actors look like real people, not like actors playing real people, a testament both to the casting and their abilities as performers.

Lantana starts as a simple character drama, but as the coincidences and inter-relations between the characters pile up and the subtext and layering becomes more complex, you know that just one screening will not be enough; indeed, repeated viewings not only reveal more of the sub-surface detailing, but heighten the quiet brilliance of the main drama. Please, please, someone give Ray Lawrence the money he needs to make another movie and soon – I really can't wait another sixteen years for the next one.

sound and vision

A very engagingly designed main menu is set against a grab from the film of Leon and Sonja dancing, accompanied by one of the more emotional Latin tunes that feature throughout the production, a shot that carries real significance on the second viewing.

Anamorphically enhanced, the 2.35:1 picture here is impressive, seen to fine effect in the opening shot – the detail on the leaves of the Lantana plants, the solid blacks of the darkness beneath, the clear detail and lack of artefacting in the gloomy undergrowth as the body is revealed are all very well reproduced. The natural lighting of the cinematography is very well showcased, the softly lit interiors looking every bit as good as the sunlit exteriors. The night-time scenes, where large areas of dark often give way to isolated pools of light, are particularly well rendered.

The 5.1 soundtrack is not an overly aggressive one, but the separation is good and the rear speakers being used well to create a sense of place and atmosphere in much the same way as David Lynch's The Straight Story. The clarity and quality of the sound mix is very impressive, the music in particular really hitting home. Lower frequencies are used effectively for atmospherics, key sound effects and music, which is particularly effective in the night club scene, where the acoustics and bass thump-thump of the music are just right. Once again, the opening sequence is a good showcase, the increasingly shrill cry of insects rising to an almost uncomfortably level, to be replaced by the ominously deep bass piano notes of the score, the first of which resounded around my living room and right through my chest.

extra features

Quantity here is traded off for quality. First up is a Commentary Track by director Ray Lawrence, writer Andrew Bovell and producer Jan Chapman. Rather than the usual mono or 2.0 track, this has been coded in 5.1, giving each of the participants a speaker to themselves. Though unusual (and at first a little disarming if your speakers are set widely apart), this actually works well, as there is never any confusion over who is saying what, even when their voices overlaps. The track itself is lively and informative with few dead spots – a lot of information about the genesis and making of the film, the similarities to and differences from the original stage play, the casting and the performances is delivered, and this is clearly a project all involved were happy to be part of and enthusiastic about bringing to the screen. That doesn't stop Lawrence from occasionally expressing dissatisfaction with odd shots or moments that he didn't feel worked as well as they could have.

The accompanying 'making of' documentary, The Nature of Lantana, turns out to be far more than the standard electronic press kit, running for 44 minutes and featuring extensive interview footage with principal cast members and film-makers, including Lawrence himself. Shot 4:3 on what looks like DV, the quality of the image is variable, depending on where particular interviews were shot – actors have been interviewed on set, but Lawrence appears to have been caught in what looks like a shopping mall. This was clearly made as a television special to accompany the release of the film in Australia – the commercial break points are very evident and each section has a different tone, structure and area of interest. Perhaps the most singular is the one where Kerry Armstrong takes us on a quiet trip through the house they are filming in that day (the director is asleep between scenes, hence her exaggerated shushing), whispering details about the house, the props, the cast and the crew, and introducing the young actors who play her children like a mother performing for a home movie. There's plenty of good stuff in here, though, not least Lawrence's genuine incredulity that with fast modern film stocks, any film-maker these days should feel the need to use artificial lighting, though for those of us involved in film and video production, seeing just how they did create artificial moonlight is a valuable inclusion.

summary

Lantana is one of my favourite films of the year, a beautifully constructed and understated drama that draws in elements from more than one genre to produce a compelling individualistic whole. A fine script, great performances, an effective use of natural light and quietly magnificent direction result in a film that seriously impresses first time round, then just gets better with every viewing. The disk does the film justice, with a solid transfer, fine sound, an enjoyable and informative commentary track and an above average 'making of' documentary.

Lantana

Australia / Germany 2001
121 mins
director
Ray Lawrence
starring
Anthony LaPaglia
Geoffrey Rush
Barbara Hershey
Kerry Armstrong
Rachel Blake
Russell Dystra

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Director, producer and writer commentary
Nature of Lantana documentary
Trailer
Biographies
distributor
Columbia Tristar
review posted
4 December 2003

See all of Slarek's reviews