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Film review: lantana

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The opening shot of "Lantana" is a sweeping pan across a field of the beautifully flowered but also sharply thorned plants that give the film its name. It's as close to beautiful as the film ever gets.

That's not meant as a quality judgment; it's more of a statement about this dramatic thriller's major theme, which focuses on the ugly, little secrets that some married couples carry with them.

It's a difficult subject to convey cinematically, yet Australian director Ray Lawrence manages to do it and in quite an effective fashion.

What makes that so surprising is that it's been 15 years since Lawrence's last film (the dark comic "Bliss," which also featured a rather ironic title). During that long layoff, Lawrence's storytelling skills don't seem to have eroded — if anything, they may have gotten even stronger.

Of course, he's fortunate to have such a talented cast, led by character actor Anthony LaPaglia, who stars as Australian detective Sgt. Leon Zat. Leon is somewhat bored after nearly 20 years of marriage to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). So on the side, he's having an affair with Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), who just happens to be in their Latin dancing class.

Jane is estranged from her husband, Michael (Russell Dykstra), and besides carrying on an affair with Leon, she's also flirting with her next-door neighbor, Nik Daniels (Vince Colosimo).

Her attentions to Nik become somewhat more important when she spots him doing something suspicious — dumping a woman's shoe into nearby lantana bushes. As it turns out, that shoe belongs to Valerie Sommers (Barbara Hershey), a psychiatrist who's been missing since an argument with her husband (Geoffrey Rush).

Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (who adapts his acclaimed stage play "Speaking in Tongues" here) effectively juggle the soap opera-like dramatic elements, the mystery/thriller subplot and the social commentary.

The film is somewhat aloof, an at-a-distance method of storytelling that may put off some — it recalls the Canadian film "The Sweet Hereafter" — and the sheer number of characters make cinematic "intimacy" impossible here.

But the performances don't suffer as a result. The usually solid LaPaglia is very believable as a man given to fits of rage because of his frustrations, while Armstrong is excellent as his not-as-clueless-as-she-appears wife.

And as good as those two are, the work by the supporting cast may be even stronger — especially the all-too-brief turns by Rush, Blake and Colosimo.

"Lantana" is rated R for frequent use of strong, R-rated profanity, scenes of simulated sex, violence (police brutality), gore, brief drugs (marijuana), brief partial female nudity and use of crude slang terms. Running time: 121 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com