the original play by Andrew Bovell – Speaking in Tongues
The lantana bush is a tropical weed with colorful, scented flowers and dense spiky undergrowth–a perfect symbol for the troubled marriages that are explored in the film of the same name that arrives in the U.S. from Australia accompanied by accolades and awards. Based on a play by Andrew Bovell, Speaking in Tongues, the film revolves around the relationships of four married couples, three of which are badly strained.
Opening with a tracking shot over jungly acres of lantana plants with the insistent noises of tropical insects droning on the soundtrack, the take ends with the discovery of the corpse of a woman deep in the tangled undergrowth. Lantana‘s plot weaves the multiple relationships around the mystery of this woman’s death.
Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a brutal police detective with little concern for the rights of suspects, is married and the father of two sons. He has a two-night stand with Jane O’May (Rachel Blake) who is separated from her husband, Pete (Glenn Robbins). Leon and Jane met at a salsa class that Zat attends with his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Unknown to Leon, Sonja is unhappy with the state of their marriage and is secretly seeing a shrink, Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey). Somers’ own marriage is nothing to write home about; her law dean husband (Geoffrey Rush) doesn’t often make love to her and they both seem locked into the loss two years before of their eleven year old daughter. Somers is also disturbed by a gay patient, Patrick (Peter Phelps), who is having an affair with a married man–could that man be her husband?
Fine performances by the entire ensemble and dialogue that accurately captures the tone both of what is said and what isn’t–the pauses, the omissions–combine to create a credible collection of permutations and variations on the strains of marriage. Temptations, frustrations, trust and the failure of trust, secrets and betrayals all come into play, and love, even when there, is not always enough to sustain the relationship.
Where all too many films are plot-driven with minimal characterization, Lantana‘s well-realized characterizations are undermined by the strained and artificial developments of the plot. The chance interconnectedness of several of the characters defies belief, and Leon’s illegal investigatory procedures, which seem unlikely under the circumstances, become key plot devices.
The fourth couple–the couple with a healthy relationship–consists of an unemployed father who stays home and takes care of their brood of children while his wife works double shifts to support the family. Playwright Andrew Bovell, who adapted his play for the screen, seems to suggest that there is greater fragility in marital relationships in the middle classes than in the working classes, but if that was what was intended, it’s a simplistic thesis at best.
Director Ray Lawrence takes a straightforward approach with his camera; it’s in his work with the actors that his skills shine. But if the characterizations are the flowers of Lantana, the plot is its thorny undergrowth, its contrived machinations detracting significantly from the success of the total product.