In the midst of a midlife crisis, detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) investigates the disappearance of a prominent psychiatrist, Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Zat suspects her husband John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) of having had a homosexual affair with Patrick Phelan, one of her patients (Peter Phelps). Zat discovers his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) was also a patient. Suspicion then falls on a young unemployed man, Nik Daniels (Vince Colosimo), when a neighbour, Jane O’May (Rachael Blake) reports him. All these lives begin to unravel under the pressure of suspicion.
After his brilliant debut film, Bliss (1985), based on a novel by Peter Carey, director Ray Lawrence spent 15 years trying to get finance for his second film. Several projects failed before he got to make Lantana, but the film did not disappoint – it was a critical and popular success.
Lantana is distinctly different to most contemporary Australian films – sparser, darker, more emotionally mysterious. Sydney is not shown as the beautiful sunny city we’re used to. It’s an urban drama about degrees of trust, with a large ensemble cast, and an utterly serious tone. Andrew Bovell’s script, adapted from his own play, uses coincidence to connect a series of characters who are seemingly unconnected, but going through similar crises of life. The film is partly about the messiness of real relationships, the way that emotions spill over between work, home and leisure. LaPaglia’s detective, for instance, carries his frustrations about home to work with him; Barbara Hershey’s psychiatrist, who’s grieving for a murdered daughter, lashes out at a stranger on the street (clip one).
The name of the film confused audiences overseas – and some at home. Lantana is in fact a weed – a thick bush, hard to get rid of, but with a beautiful flower. ‘Once you go past that,’ said Lawrence, ‘it’s all thorns’.