Yes, technically, summer has passed. I began writing this piece the week before Garry Marshall passed away, and then I got sidetracked writing about Frankie & Johnny, my favorite Marshall film. I came back to this piece, but was once again sidetracked when Gene Wilder died. Then, I just needed a short break before I resumed. So, here we are at last….even though, again, summer has passed.
Walking is one of my favorite ways to take care of myself. I love walking the way that many people love wine or chocolate, and, make no mistake, I loooove chocolate. I’ve been walking for fun and/or fitness for most of my life. I used to walk to work and back, a mile or more, for decades. Didn’t drive. Luckily, I loved to walk. Great way to clear the mind, relieve stress, what have you. I try to take a health walk after dinner every evening.
Lately, I’ve been listening, really, deeply listening, to the buzz of cicadas as I walk among the heavily tree lined lanes of my neighborhood. I get lost in the sound, the thrilling complexity of it, layers upon layers of throbbing buzzing. For me, it’s quite likely hypnotic.
This same sense of awe is very much apparent in the Australian movie Lantana, right from the beginning.
In Lantana, the sounds of cicadas are heard before anything visual is revealed. Then follows a beautiful shot in which camera glides among bushy lantana, masses of colorful blossoms and vivid green leaves growing wild, basking in sun-kissed richness. This gorgeous footage of flowers is deepened, amplified, by the droning buzz of cicadas, maybe frogs, and even crickets. The camera artfully descends into a dark hole in the clump, peers down into the thorny underbrush, slowly revealing something unfortunate, tragic, maybe even sinister. Brilliant. As much as I love this sequence, even I have to admit that it bears a wee resemblance to a similar sequence in David Lynch’s 1986 cult fave Blue Velvet, but Lantana is very much its own movie.
Before writing this post, I researched the lantana plant in order to put it into context, that is, the context that Australians, Australian filmmakers–screenwriter Andrew Bovell, producer Jan Chapman, and director Ray Lawrence, would find compelling. To that end, per the official New South Wales, Australian.gov website , “Lantana is one of Australia’s most debilitating invasive weeds” (para. 1). Additionally, “Widespread lantana infestations regularly impact on agriculture, the environment, forestry management, recreation and transport” (para. 2). Furthermore, all varieties of the plant are considered to be “toxic” to both animals and humans (para. 3-7). Finally, “Lantana is a serious invader of disturbed ecosystems including national parks and reserves. The weed can form a dense understorey competing with native flora and limiting natural regeneration” (para. 11). This then is the “thicket” that occupies the heart of Lawrence’s film. Not only does the tangled growth literally figure into the plot–twice, in fact–it serves as a metaphor for love and betrayal.
If there is an actual plot in Lantana, it is the story of a woman who disappears while driving along a deserted road in the thick of night. Her marriage is shaky, and, certainly, her husband’s behavior seems awfully curious. Of the two detectives assigned to the case, the male is in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis, racked in equal parts by doubt and guilt. And for good reason. That’s the plot, the linking thread among four heterosexual couples in various states of disarray: the unfaithful detective and his frustrated–and also not blind–wife; the missing woman and her suspicious-acting husband; an estranged duo in which the woman is desperately lonely to the point that she stalks a sometime “date” while her ex longs for reconciliation. A fourth couple’s struggles are financial. She picks up extra shifts at her job to earn as much cash as possible while laid-off hubby stays home and takes care of the kiddies. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but these people love each other and try as well as they know to make their relationship work. Unfortunately, a busybody neighbor, one with too much time on his or her hands, observes that the out of work hubby appears to be hiding something, something potentially deadly. Another couple operates on the periphery: yet another presumably hetero married man cheats on his wife with–gasp!–another man, the patient of a therapist with troubles of his or her own who also happens to be treating one of the women experiencing marital difficulty. Tangled, right?
Lantana belongs to a rare class of motion pictures–okay, rare to me–that I call “solar plexus” films. This is my own term as far as I know, and I’ve used it for years, well before Lantana ever screened. Other movies of this vintage, and it’s a small, small, group, include The Devil’s Playground (directed by fellow Aussie Fred Schepisi, 1976), Exotica (directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan, 1994), and The Ballad of Narayama (specifically, director Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake of the Japanese classic from the 1950s). Maybe Frances (1982) and Monster (2003) rate as well, but, again, it’s a super select group. A solar-plexus film is not merely sad nor even depressing. It’s more profound than that, but even calling it profound seems pretentious. I like to think a solar plexus film hits squarely upon an uncomfortable emotional truth. Something painful about the human condition, not necessarily bad, but definitely, again, painful or uncomfortable. It weighs heavily to the degree that it creates its own unique bodily sensation, I’ve only seen one comedy that came close to that sensation, and that is 2013’s Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.
Lantana is about love and betrayal. I recently read somewhere that betrayal by a loved one is betrayal of the worst sort because we don’t expect such actions form a loved one. On the other hand, does betrayal by an enemy even qualify as betrayal? Is that even a thing? In this case, as the layers of betrayal are pulled back, the truth is even more unbearable than the unknown. Right in the solar plexus where the sensation lingers.
Once upon a time, beginning in the mid to late 1970s and up through the early to mid 1980s, film lovers all over the place fell, well, in love with Australian cinema. And why not? The newly thriving industry, largely underwritten by the government, brought a fresh, hugely talented bunch of filmmakers to the forefront of popular and critical acclaim. For example, director Gillian Armstrong helped launch the careers of charmers Judy Davis and Sam Neil in the Victorian coming of age tale My Brilliant Career. Additionally, Peter Weir, well known in the states for Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show, made a name for himself with the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and Gallipoli, the latter starring exciting newcomer Mel Gibson who had already begun making a name for himself in George Miller’s Mad Max. Meanwhile, Fred Schepisi helmed the aforementioned The Devil’s Playground as well as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Before he scored in America with the likes of Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Beresford triumphed in his homeland with The Getting of Wisdom and Breaker Morant. Finally, but not really final, is Philip Noyce. Americans know him from big budget blockbusters on the order of Salt (which I wrote about in 2011), Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, but he attracted a lot of attention Down Under with Newsfront (a major Australian Academy winner), Heat Wave (Judy Davis again), and Dead Calm (Sam Neil and a very young Nicole Kidman).
Since that time, the Australian film community has continued to make amazing films, The Dish and Rabbit Proof Fence (the latter directed by the aforementioned Noyce) being two particular standouts; likewise, Australia shares its wealth, meaning some of the biggest names in American made films got their first big breaks Down Under: Toni Collette (Muriel’sWedding), Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper) , Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman (Flirting, plus the aforementioned Dead Calm), Guy Pearce (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and Naomi Watts (also, Flirting), among others. All well and fine, but the “wow” factor, the enthusiasm and intrigue of that first wave, has long passed as audiences explore other genres, other cultures–other styles of filmmaking. That being the case, maybe you missed Lantana in its theatrical run. Maybe you’d see it if you only had a reason.
I can give you 8 good reasons you should consider watching Lantana. Not coincidentally, that’s the same number of Australian Film Institute Awards (the Oscar equivalent) it won, setting a record at that time for sweeping all the major categories. If that’s not enough, how about 14 good reasons, that is, the number of AFI nominations it garnered? Are you ready? Here goes:
- Anthony LaPaglia (Best Actor) – We’ve become so accustomed to seeing LaPaglia in American TV shows and movies, such as The Client, wherein he played Barry “The Blade” Muldano, not to mention Tony winning Broadway productions, such as A View from the Bridge, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is, in fact, a native Australian. As the weary detective whose marriage is falling apart at the seams, LaPaglia is the emotional heart of Lantana. He is at constant odds with himself, maybe at odds with everyone he encounters (including one of his children), and his confusion, melded as it is with his sense of justice, is palpable. An Oscar nomination in the year that produced Denzel Washington (Training Day), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), and Will Smith (Ali) would have been more than okay with me as I wasn’t a HUGE fan of any of the nominees though they all had their moments, especially Wilkinson, I guess, in problematic films. I’ve always believed that LaPaglia’s right-on performance in this film was a likely catalyst in him being cast as the lead detective in Without a Trace, the long-running American TV series for which he netted two Emmy nominations and one SAG nod as well, among other honors. As with his character on that show, he begins his case in this film by searching for a missing person, not by investigating a crime, per se.
- Kerry Armstrong (Best Actress) – Armstrong plays LaPaglia’s no-nonsense wife. She doesn’t necessarily go snooping to see what he’s up to because she doesn’t have to. She might not know all the details, but she knows enough, and we feel for her because, among other things, Armstrong is a knockout, a casually elegant beauty on the order of America’s own Christy Turlington though Armstrong is, in fact, older by about a decade…no matter. She looks great, and audiences might be baffled by why her husband cheats, but, of course, we all know that, as is often the case, people in relationships who stray often do so for reasons that have NOTHING to do with the person being cheated upon and everything to do with the cheater. Still, it’s obvious that Armstrong’s character dearly loves her husband, and she’s just tired and lonely enough, and don’t forget so incredibly good looking, that she might be tempted to do something she will surely regret. Powerful stuff. She and LaPaglia have a great wordless scene that speaks volumes. They know how to just “be” onscreen. Oh, and the year that Armstrong won her Australian Film Institute award for Lantana, she also won an additional award from the same organization for her work in the TV show Sea Change. Not bad. Not bad at all.
- Rachael Blake (Best Supporting Actress) – In a film rife with flawed characters, Blake’s divorcee is seriously one of the worst of the lot. She’s desperate for attention and affection, enough so that she hunts a recent fling, setting up an extremely awkward confrontation, and she makes overtures, overtures that could easily be misconstrued, to a neighbor. Aside from all that, she has a lot of free time on her hand, time that allows for a lot of voyeurism, amateur sleuth stuff that has far-reaching implications, both good and bad. She’s a mess, but, in a bit of a twist, her ex-hubby still seems wildly infatuated with her. Out of everyone she knows, he may very well be the only one who actually has feelings for her though she would rather be at home by herself, flailing through life, than reconnect. I don’t know if my response is more geared to the character than to Blake herself but this is probably my least favorite performance in the bunch, with or without her award. Something about her just reads as “awkward” to me, and I mean that in a Jane Lynch kind of way. Even her character is named Jane. I actually like Jane Lynch, a lot, and Blake is actually a decade younger than Lynch, but Lynch has a way of portraying awkward people in a funny way. Blake isn’t going for comedy. Oh well. She’s a busy lady with multiple Australian Film Institute nods to her credit, besides her win for Lantana.
- Vince Colosimo (Best Supporting Actor) – As an out of work husband whose actions attract the wrong kind of attention, Colosimo expertly plays every note of a character who is both more and less than what he seems at the outset. In other words, he might not be guilty, but that doesn’t necessarily make him innocent, or smart, and that is a tricky assignment for any actor. Like Rachael Blake, Colosimo is a busy, busy, actor and has been for decades. In the 90s, he appeared on several episodes of the American series The Practice. At home, his range of credits include roles in The Great Gatsby (yes, the DiCaprio version helmed by Aussie Baz Luhrman) and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. He boasts an additional trio of AFI nods, including Best Actor for Walking on Water, a big hit, as well, at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.
- Andrew Bovell (Best Adapted Screenplay AND Harpers Bazaar AFI Screenwriting Prize) – I truly do not know the point in awarding two prizes for one screenplay, but there you have it. Bovell’s screenplay is so good that his own countrymen–and women–found enough reason to honor it twice. Of course, Bovell juggles the criss-crossing storylines and varied characters with dexterity, an admirable accomplishment, but Lovell’s greater achievement–arguable, of course–is hitting all the right emotional notes–and even some of the wrong ones, if that makes any sense. Again, before this movie arrives at its final sequence, many of these characters will face some disturbing truths. Some of them, the characters, that is, will come out on the other side of these knotty thorns with dignity intact and hope renewed. The others will not be so fortunate, and give Bovell credit for not tying up each story thread so nicely and neatly after so expertly showing us the dark and desperate side of humanity. Bovell’s other credits include being listed as one of the several writers of Baz Luhrman’s acclaimed, award winning, debut smash, Strictly Ballroom.
- Ray Lawrence (Best Director) – If Bovell’s gift is for getting inside the heads of his imaginary characters, Lawence’s talent is for excelling likewise with real-life performers. Certainly, members of the Australian Academy, many of them actors, no doubt, showed Lawrence and his cast their appreciation with all those awards. That consideration, by the way, extended to one more performer who was bested by one of her peers, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Besides noteworthy performances, Lawrence’s concerns include the movie’s lighting and music, both of which he recalls at length on Lantana‘s DVD.
- Jan Chapman (Producer, Best Picture) – If Chapman’s name seems familiar, you might remember her from 1993’s The Piano which she produced though, to clarify, Jan Chapman should not be confused with Jane Campion, who actually directed The Piano, earning an Oscar nod for Best Director (only the second woman in Academy history so recognized) and actually winning the coveted statuette for her screenplay. Back to Chapman. She is one of her country’s most respected producers with a seemingly unerring eye for material, for recognizing talent, and for creating opportunities. She won Australia’s top film prize for The Piano as well as for this film and her filmography also includes accolades for The Last Days of Chez Nous (directed by Gillian Armstrong) and Bright Star (the John Keats biopic directed by Campion). Besides dominating the Australia Film Institute awards, Chapman and her film made a handsome showing at the Film Critics Circle of Australia derby, claiming prizes and/or nominations in many of the same categories.
Besides these wins, Lantana scored additional Australian Academy nominations for Best Editing (Karl Sodersten), Best Sound (the team of Syd Butterworth, Andrew Plain, and Robert Sullivan), Best Production Design (Kim Buddee), Best Costume Design (Margot Wilson), and Best Original Music Score (Paul Kelly). Let’s break this down. Kelly lost in his category but emerged victorious at his country’s equivalent of the Grammy awards. Bing! Likewise, Syd Butterworth, of the sound team, was honored by members of his own guild for his work with location recording. Bing again! Regarding the nominations for art direction and costume, it really comes as no surprise that a contemporary film would not go all the way in categories often dominated, at least in the U.S., by period and/or fantasy films. That noted, these designers deserve props for defining the habits and environments of a large number of characters from a wide range of economic backgrounds, from obviously affluent to barely making ends meet, all of which shape the way they dress along with where and how they live. In that regard, the design team is a huge success since everything seems real and lived-in. Also, props to cinematographer Mandy Walker. She wasn’t even nominated for the AFI award, strangely, though she snagged a prize from her colleagues in the Australian Cinematographers Society, and good for her since she and Lawrence worked hard to achieve naturalistic lighting, even during night shoots, always a tricky proposition. Bing!
Still, I want to pay special tribute to one cast member who was nominated but lost–to one of her own cast members, no less. Ouch! I’m referring to Daniela Farinacci, nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the put upon wife and mother, taken to working extra shifts as a nurse to help make ends meet while her husband seems helplessly between jobs. Per the IMDb, Farinacci barely had any TV or movie credits to her name when she signed on for Lantana, but, no matter, she’s a real spitfire, trying to hold on tightly to her loved ones in order to keep the family unit together while also trying to make sense of the confusion, and possible (perceived) betrayal that unfolds rather dramatically in a short period. With the possible exception of Thomas’s frustrated wife, Farinacci’s Paula may very well be the most decent, most likeable, character in the whole film. She doesn’t hide her emotions, and everything she does seems authentic. Too bad she lost to Rachael Blake in a role that doesn’t seem quite as compelling.
Among the large cast’s non-nominated pool are two stars well-known to audiences in both Australia and America. The first of those is Geoffrey Rush who, at the time of Lantana, had already achieved international glory, including an American Oscar, for portraying troubled yet triumphant Aussie pianist David Helfgott in 1996’s Shine–that and subsequent nominations for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love (Best Supporting Actor) and 1990’s Quills, in which he played the Marquis de Sade (Best Actor). Rush’s character exists in a strained marriage with no less than American thesp, Barbara Hershey. Coincidentally, Hershey’s lone Oscar nod–Best Supporting Actress for Portrait of a Lady–came in 1996, the same year that Rush won for Shine. To clarify, Hershey does not play her Lantana role with an Aussie accent. Instead, we understand her to to be a transplanted American. To further clarify, the role was not necessarily written that way. Apparently, Hershey won the part through persistence after reading the screenplay–and apparently after no other Australian native (Judy Davis? Sigrid Thornton? Rachel Ward? The late Wendy Hughes?) was deemed suitable or was willing to step up to the plate. Curious, but I digress. The two characters played by Rush and Hershey struggle to remain civil to one another while pressing on after facing inexplicable tragedy. She clings to the catharsis of writing a book as a coping mechanism while he shields his feelings and clings to workplace minutiae as a means of avoidance. His reluctance to engage spurs within her almost crippling thoughts of infidelity, impairing her judgement. What a mess. Both performers deliver thoughtful performances with Rush definitely working through the murkier challenge.
Despite capturing honors all over the place, including England, France, and Italy, Lantana did not make much of a showing in the U.S. during the 2001/02 awards season. Not only did the Academy ignore the picture, it couldn’t even gain traction with the likes of the Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild. The smattering of prizes it did claim came from the National Board of Review (Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking), the American Association of Retired Persons, that is, AARP, award (Best Movie for Grownups), and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, where it garnered prizes for director Lawrence, screenwriter Bovell, and the ensemble cast. It also tied for Best Picture with the Zookeeper.
Maybe you haven’t seen Lantana. Maybe you should. Maybe you should at least consider doing so. If you are a fan of, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), or 2005’s Best Picture winner Crash, per writer-director Paul Haggis, Lantana might be just the ticket. Oh, speaking of Altman, aside from his exquisite Gosford Park, I could not work up much enthusiasm for the Academy’s slate of Best Picture nominees that year. Oh, as noted previously regarding the Best Actor roster, the selected films had their moments, but moments, possibly a few standout performances, were all they had. To this day, and, again, with the exception of Gosford Park, I haven’t felt compelled to watch a single one of them again since seeing them in their original runs. Not once. What a strange time that was because both Gosford Park and Lantana did not open locally until early 2002, and I can remember being flummoxed for much of the holiday season, and I felt odd, weird, different, frustratingly unsatisfied that I had not seen that truly awesometastic movie that usually sparks a cinematic jolt followed by, as a good friend once described, movie afterglow. Then in short order, I saw Gosford Park and Lantana almost back to back, and I felt a rush, a wash of delirium as though I had been saved, saved by Lantana‘s tangled embrace.
Thanks for your consideration…
* Debt of gratitude to Joni Mitchell for inspiring this title
 – To learn more about the lantana plant: http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/78
 – Technically, Crowe was born in New Zealand while Naomi Watts was born in England, and even Nicole Kidman was, actually, born in Hawaii; however, they, as noted, eventually relocated to Australia and began their careers. To further clarify, directors Jane Campion (The Piano) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) are actually from New Zealand though strongly identified with Australian cinema.
 – The big winner that year was A Beautiful Mind (admired the performances, not crazy about the finished product as a whole) though I believe the first installment of The Lord of the Rings scored more nominations (the series built steadily to its third entry). Rounding out the ballot were In the Bedroom (liked, didn’t love…hard to love), Moulin Rouge! (an acquired taste…I belive Time labelled it both the year’s Best AND Worst film), and, finally, Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s exquisite homage to “cozy” murder mysteries penned by Agatha Christie–scripted by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, who later masterminded the wildly popular British series Downton Abbey.