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A Fine Affair

The suds are light and deep in the dolled-up soap Lantana.

Ray Lawrence's Lantana is high-toned Australian soap opera, which is to say that its philandering police detective and its grief-stricken psychoanalyst are a bit quirkier than their all-too-familiar televised counterparts. Its unhappy wives, gloomy husbands and alienated teenagers are more carefully constructed than similar characters in less ambitious movies. This is sophisticated and sometimes very wry stuff, but you can still see and feel the suds oozing from the film's huge tangle of domestic intranquilities, and in that lies its chief pleasure.

Lawrence may aspire to the existentialist gloom of Ingmar Bergman or the biting insight of American Beauty, but he's really at his best dispensing cheap thrills in great quantities. American cult-movie audiences know him via Bliss, a 1985 comedy in which an advertising executive is changed by a near-death experience and goes on an offbeat quest for real happiness.

Lantana takes its title from a common Aussie wildflower whose pretty blooms conceal sharp thorns. As metaphors go, this one isn't bad. Despite their attempts to be courageous and upright, the waves of lonely and beleaguered souls we meet in the film -- four or five separate couples, their friends and children -- are all caught up in hidden perils. Playwright Andrew Bovell, who has transferred his Speaking in Tongues from stage to screen here, sees to it that there's never a dull moment in the adultery and guilt departments, and he provides more emotional firepower from the realms of gay trauma and parental mourning. He and director Lawrence manage to bind the whole untidy package together through the mystery of one woman's disappearance.

Tough love: Anthony LaPaglia finds trouble in Lantana.
Tough love: Anthony LaPaglia finds trouble in Lantana.

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Screenplay by Andrew Bovell, from his play Speaking in Tongues

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The talented ensemble cast includes veteran tough guy Anthony LaPaglia as a discontented cop named Leon Zat, who has just started an affair with a married woman named Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), whom he met at the Latin dance class he takes with his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong); Peter Phelps as Patrick, the young gay agonizing over his affair with a married man; and Aussie superstar Geoffrey Rush (late of The Tailor of Panama) as John Knox, a quiet law professor whose marriage has been paralyzed by the murder, two years earlier, of the couple's eleven-year-old daughter. Knox's wife is Lantana's pivotal figure, an American psychoanalyst named Valerie Somers (the re-emergent Barbara Hershey), whose numbed response to her child's death was to write a bestseller about it. When Dr. Somers goes missing, the real crises kick in. Not only is she a famous author and a troubled wife, but she's shrink to half the cast -- including the unhappy spouse of the detective assigned to the case, who happens to be the prying and suspicious Leon Zat.

Evidently, these filmmakers admire the relentless busyness of Grand Hotel and Nashville; they've got enough seemingly unrelated characters colliding and subplots boiling to supply three movies, but they've also got an uncanny sense of design. Their wild skeins come together nicely at just the right moment, and they even provide something like resolution to John and Jane and Leon and Sonja and some other people we haven't even gotten to yet. If Valerie Somers's disappearance is a tragedy, it also becomes the vehicle by which Lantana's army of strivers, neurotics and misanthropes learns to avoid at least some of life's thorny patches while trying to find peace. Bovell and Lawrence don't extend such generosity to everyone, but you get the feeling they'd like to.

Given a cast of this size, no one dominates, but there are some superb acting moments. Leon's resentful mistress practices a tango step with his clueless wife as he looks on uncomfortably. A husband suspected of murder turns the tables on a cop by asking some penetrating questions about his marriage. A man and wife who've failed to communicate for years are emotionally awakened by the responsibility of tending to a neighbor's sick baby. A lonely woman flirts with a younger man at a dance club, then fends him off in the parking garage. A husband discovers a cassette tape of his wife venting to her psychiatrist. From these parts, Ray Lawrence constructs a vivid pastiche of human foibles, nicely flavored with a touch of suspense and some well-timed jolts of humor. In the end, it's a terrifically entertaining film, if not quite as profound as the makers might wish.

 
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