[Screen It]

(2001) (Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong) (R)

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Drama: The lives of four married couples become increasingly intertwined when one of the wives turns up missing.
Leon Zat (ANTHONY LaPAGLIA) is a police detective who isn't happy with his life or marriage to wife Sonja (KERRY ARMSTRONG). Accordingly, he's having an affair with Jane O'May (RACHAEL BLAKE), a woman in his and Sonja's dance class who's separated from her husband, Pete (GLENN ROBBINS).

She lives next-door to Nik (VINCE COLOSIMO) and Paula D'Amato (DANIELA FARINACCI) and is jealous of their apparent happiness together, despite their messy house and him currently being unemployed.

Not lacking for work is psychiatrist Valerie Somers (BARBARA HERSHEY) whose own marriage to husband John Knox (GEOFFREY RUSH) has been in a downward spiral ever since their 11-year-old daughter was murdered two years ago. Among her clients is Sonja, who realizes more than a little is amiss in their marriage, as well as Patrick (PETER PHELPS), a gay man whose affair with another married man becomes increasingly disturbing for Valerie.

As the couples try to sort out their particular problems, one of the wives ends up missing. As Leon and his cop partner, Claudia (LEAH PURCELL), start investigating and try to solve the case, the couples' lives crisscross in various unexpected ways.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Despite covering and then reexamining just about every domestic issue, problem and crisis known to man, woman and child, and the dwindling number of viewers thanks to more women being in the workforce now than in decades past, soap operas continue to thrive on TV.

They occasionally make their way to the big screen as well, although never with that moniker or the usual stigma attached to such overwrought and often melodramatic material. One such film that could have come across as an expanded soap is "Lantana." An Australian film that's been racking up awards and accolades in its homeland and around the world, the story involves four couples, their respective marital issues and problems, as well as affairs, psychiatrists and even a missing woman.

Fortunately, screenwriter Andrew Bovell ("Head On," "Strictly Ballroom") - who's adapted his own stage play, "Speaking in Tongues" - and director Ray Lawrence ("Bliss") have thankfully avoided the soap trappings in favor of a well-made and engaging look at relationships.

Of course, it doesn't seem that it's starting off that way since the first thing we see is a dead woman's body lying face down in the brush, with the wedding ring on her finger prominently displayed. As the story's various characters are then introduced, we naturally wonder if any of the wives will be the victim, or if any of the players might be the murderer.

It's a good ploy to make one pay attention to what the characters say and do as we try to pick up any clues that might allow us to solve the mystery. Yet, the film is less a classic whodunit than an absorbing portrayal of what sustains and destroys marriages.

Symbolically named after the lantana bush that looks pretty but whose beauty conceals nasty hidden thorns, the film will likely remind some viewers of the large ensemble pictures from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") or Robert Altman ("Dr. T and the Women"). Like those works, the various characters' individual storylines here eventually bump into and then cross over the others.

While that provides for some of the film's more enjoyable, entertaining and even funny moments, some may see a few or many of them as being a bit too coincidental and/or calculated in nature. I didn't have such a problem with them, but can see why some might.

What makes the film work so well and be such a strong effort is not only the direction and writing - much of the dialogue is terrific - but also the solid performances. Featuring a terrific cast that creates credible and memorable characters, the film manages to make us care about them even if they're far from perfect or likable.

The most notable performer in that category is Anthony LaPaglia ("The House of Mirth," "Summer of Sam") as the cop going through the standard midlife crisis. Beyond the actor giving the performance of his career - this is the sort of meaty role that actors would kill for - it's the way the character has been written and develops that makes Leon, the adulterous, law-breaking detective so fascinating.

Playing his equally dissatisfied wife is Kerry Armstrong ("Justice," "Amy") who delivers a pitch-perfect performance. As a result, one never doubts for a moment that they're a married couple whose relationship is going down the drain.

Geoffrey Rush ("The Tailor of Panama," "Shine") and Barbara Hershey ("The Portrait of a Lady," "Hannah and her Sisters") do the same with their disillusioned and distraught characters who've been sliding downhill ever since their daughter was murdered several years earlier. Both deliver superb performances.

Vince Colosimo ("Chopper," "Street Hero") and Daniela Farinacci (various TV programs) follow suit as the couple who would seem to be the most dissatisfied due to their trappings but are conversely the happiest, while Rachael Blake ("Paws," various TV programs) and the occasionally seen Glenn Robbins (who's appeared in various TV programs) play spouses who are already dealing with a split.

Through those four characters, and a handful of supporting ones from the likes of Leah Purcell ("Somewhere in the Darkness") as Leon's cop partner and Peter Phelps ("Blackwater Trail," "Rough Diamonds") as a gay man having an affair with a married man, the filmmakers do a terrific job portraying and examining the variables and intricacies of relationships, as well as showing and examining the rarely seen emotional side of men. They do so without being preachy or melodramatic, two factors that easily could have appeared and/or overwhelmed the material.

Obviously not exactly what one would deem entertaining or uplifting - although it has moments of both - the film is an engaging and absorbing drama that rings true thanks to the cast and crew who excel at their respective crafts. "Lantana" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 22, 2002 / Posted February 1, 2002

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