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Desperation Down Under


by Ed Symkus

Don't let the caressing close-ups of the lantana plant's pretty pink and yellow flowers in the film's opening credits lull you. Pay more attention to the dark, menacing music quietly welling up behind. It's the music much more than the visuals that underscores the ominous tone of Lantana.

But before any of that can sink in, the film shoots over to a brief, torrid sex scene, followed by the realization that the woman involved here is married, and so is the man.

He is Leon (Anthony LaPaglia, an Aussie who's regularly fooled us with accents over the years), a Sydney police detective with a vicious streak. She is Jane (Rachel Blake, another Aussie who put on a good American accent as the wife of Moe Howard in the TV film The Three Stooges), the lonely, recently separated woman who met Leon at the dance class he attends with his wife.

Sonja (Kerry Armstrong, who long ago briefly played Elena on Dynasty) is the pretty but sad-faced wife, who's now seeing a therapist to figure out how to get the passion back in her marriage.

And that's just the first batch of characters who slowly get pulled together in this big, sticky web of a story, in which no one is happy, even if they seem to be on the outside.

The therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey, in near-top form), most likely has more troubles than any of her patients. Her own marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush, glowering and great at it) has also gone cold due to the murder of their daughter. In response, she wrote a book, and he hasn't yet forgiven her for going so public with their trauma. And somehow she's gotten herself emotionally involved in her gay patient's affair with a married man.

The complications between and within these and other characters is plentiful, and the script -- by Andrew Bovell, who based it on his play Speaking in Tongues -- gets around to them right away, slowly becoming more and more layered, but never feeling like it's out of control. A careful balance is maintained with all of the stories. And it's all played out at a leisurely pace, even though things get more and more nerve-wracking.

At the center of the film is a look at the causes and effects of deceit in marriage. Feelings are covered up, and secrets are kept from those who should be the most trusting, sympathetic, understanding companions. And when truths do start coming out, things don't seem to go any better.

Remember, this turns into the story of a murder, or maybe it's more a case of a missing person: one of the women does have car trouble late at night on the side of a country road, then isn't heard from. That scene, in particular, is one of the more jittery ones in the film. Another, one that might prove more unsettling, is a quick shot of a bunch of kids playing in a lantana thicket, perhaps sharing it with a corpse. There are lots of terrific ideas like that sprinkled throughout.

But there are also some pieces that don't really fit, such as repeated references to Leon possibly having a heart problem -- when he's out jogging, when he's in bed with the other woman -- that don't lead to anything. Same with a sequence in which he discovers that his older son is smoking pot and absolutely flips out. Leon's already got enough problems; the story doesn't need this one, which also happens to just go away without mention. Nor does it need a bit in which Valerie, slowly convincing herself that her life is going out of control, starts to freak out in private and in public. There's simply not enough lead-up for it to be convincing.

Still, the film rarely stops setting up suspenseful chance meetings between unrelated characters. There are two extraordinary performances. Armstrong's Sonja is a study of an almost middle-aged, still attractive, confused woman who doesn't know if she still loves or trusts her husband. And LaPaglia has never before shown the kind of quiet, intense portrayal he gives to Leon. He's most amazing in his silence after being put on the case of the missing therapist and stumbling upon the fact that his wife has been seeing her -- to talk about him.

The film features an excellent, evocative score by relative newcomer Paul Kelly. And it's this music, combined with the talented cast, that makes for a series of superb endings with no dialogue, just music. And that's fine; no explanatory words are needed. It's all up there on the screen.