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Friday, January 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Sinuous stories of struggling couples wind through 'Lantana'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Lantana"


***
With Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake. Directed by Ray Lawrence, from a screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on a play by Bovell. Visit the Web site. 120 minutes. Rated R for language and sexuality. Harvard Exit.
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A knotty meditation on love and marriage, the Australian thriller "Lantana" has a wonderful lushness.

Like the twisting vines of the plant it's named for, the film meanders through the interconnected stories of four married couples brought together by the mysterious disappearance of a woman. Each couple is struggling with loss — of a child, of passion, of love, of trust — and each finds resolution, although some more ambiguously than others.

Anthony LaPaglia, brooding and quiet, centers the film as police detective Leon Zat, who's cheating on his beautiful wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). "This is not an affair," he tells the other woman, Jane (Rachael Blake). "It's a one-night stand, except it happened twice." His adolescent sons are growing away from him, unfinished painting projects stand neglected in his house, and guilt has made him snappish and miserable.

The rhythms of the salsa dance class taken by Sonja and Leon permeate the film, both in its melancholy soundtrack and the sad drama unfolding. Characters dance toward and away from each other; partners are changed; and the sense of life as a long, slow dance is made visual.

The emotional experience of "Lantana" is heightened by its marvelous ensemble cast, all of whom etch a character in relatively brief screen time.

Armstrong, with an ever-present but disturbingly tight smile, movingly creates a wife mystified by her husband's crisis. Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey play a husband and wife bound together — and paralyzed — by grief. And LaPaglia is flawless as Leon, giving new life to the screen cliché of the midlife male crisis. He's a tightly controlled man, so that when we see him weep, late in the film, it's shocking and cathartic — big, wracking sobs, as he covers his face with a hand. A quietly beautiful performance, in a quietly beautiful film.

Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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