on December 14, 2001 by Kevin Courrier
   Like "The Ice Storm" and "Magnolia," the psychological thriller "Lantana" is a movie that examines the emotional torpor and malaise of an ensemble. But unlike those films, this drama by director Ray Lawrence ("Bliss") and screenwriter Andrew Bovell doesn't make its individuals easy targets of scorn and moral judgment. "Lantana," which is named for a spiky weed that covers Australia, is thought-out in a more complex and compassionate way.

   Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is an unhappily married detective who is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a recently divorced woman. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), because she suspects that Leon is seeing someone else. Dr. Somers, meanwhile, is still recovering from the shock of the murder of her daughter. She even has her own suspicions that her emotionally remote husband (Geoffrey Rush) is being unfaithful. The only happy couple appears to be the unemployed but genial Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his sturdy wife Paula (Daniela Farinacci). But when a disappearance and possible murder takes place, everyone's life is affected.

   "Lantana" is a tangled drama about how false assumptions get built on mistrust. But what helps unravel the labyrinth structure of the story is the deeply absorbing performances of the actors. Anthony LaPaglia has never shown the raging emotions, or the deep regret, that's buried under his beefiness. Rachael Blake as Jane is sensually captivating as an emotionally-scarred woman who feels debauched and in desperate need of human contact. Kerry Armstrong goes deep into the humiliating rage of a wife betrayed by her husband's lack of faith in their marriage. Geoffrey Rush, after his astonishing work in "Quills" and "The Tailor of Panama," continues to be both enigmatic and compelling. Only Barbara Hershey appears too opaque to be truly riveting.

   While "Lantana" is a little too cleverly woven together (the chances of these characters all meeting is a bit of a writer's conceit), the film still casts a spell that draws one into the murky waters of transgression. Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Rachael Blake, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey and Kerry Armstrong. Directed by Ray Lawrence. Written by Andrew Bovell. Produced by Jan Chapman. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 120 min. Opens 12/21

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