It’s easy to see why others have compared Lantana to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (a film of which, full disclosure, I am a big fan)… First off, there’s the fact that they’re both named after native flowers of their setting. Then there’s the small matter of the virtually identical title treatment – which was surely a conscious homage on behalf of Ray Lawrence, or at least the studio. (Lantana was released two years after Magnolia.)
Beyond surface similarities, however the main reason for the comparisons is that both films deal with intersecting lives of strangers and the complexity of turn-of-the-millennium lives. But here the two films are very different. They both present a version of reality that are actually very different from each other, even in the way they are constructed.
In Magnolia, for example, reality is presented in a very heightened, melodramatic way. It’s a glossy portrayal of characters largely on the fringes of the entertainment business. Their stories are ones centered around death. Their lives are fractured and impacted by past dark deeds and regrets. Of all the key characters, just two – Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s nurse and John C. Reilly’s cop – are thoroughbred beacons of hope and goodness.
Contrast that with the lead character of Lantana, Anthony Lapaglia’s adulterous cop, Detective Leon Zat, and the setup here is very different indeed. These lives are also haunted by death, betrayal, and regret, but the tone is overall much more positive even if the two key elements of the plot are an affair and possible murder. No doubt part of that is due to the laidback Aussie charm and the prevailing sense of “life’s a bitch, but just get on with it, mate.” By the film’s ending, most of the opaque characters we’ve previously suspected of committing shady deeds open their hearts and reveal to us their true goodness within. People atone in Lantana, and while Magnolia’s ending has elements of hope, it is far more explicit here.
That’s probably a time to mention Lantana’s influence by another American filmmaker, David Lynch. The opening smacks of an explicit nod to Blue Velvet’s infamous dive beneath the manicured lawn, and there are several driving shots that would not feel amiss in Lost Highway. As with much of Lynch’s output, no matter how dark the subject matter, optimism is never completely shut out, and happy (in a way) endings are inevitable. Same here.
Lantana’s approach to the construct of the intersecting lives is also remarkably different to Magnolia. Whereas Anderson sought to find meaning in how chance meetings and unseen connects bind us all together, in Lantana these intersections are portrayed as rarely more than happenstance. This grounds the film in a different kind of false reality – it obviously has similarities to Australian and British TV drama, for example – but it also lends a sort of “it’s a small world after all” sense to proceedings, whereas Magnolia imbued a much greater sense of importance to those non-familial connections that occurred over the course of the film. If Magnolia was concerned with epic and immense forces, then Lantana’s focus is on the small magic of the everyday.
This is perhaps most notable in the scene in which Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) barges into her gay client’s home, suspecting his lover to be – as the audience has also been led to believe by this point – her own husband. That it isn’t not only allows Lawrence to make his own comment on the nature of such intersecting lives in film (it’s a filmic device, it doesn’t mean anything – the exact opposite of Magnolia’s message) but it also suddenly eliminates any complaints about the deluge of therapy scenes in the film’s first half. Suddenly, we realize their true purpose – and that they tell us far more about Somers than they do her clients. Up until this point, Hershey is co-lead with Lapaglia, she is an individual whose life is unraveling, though she’s trying desperately to keep up appearances. It takes her death, and his subsequent analysis of who she was (not to mention the convenience of his wife being one of her clients, allowing him to illegally listen to recording of her sessions) and who he is on his way to becoming – that ultimately helps prod Zat back on to the straight and narrow.
Ultimately, though the comparisons with Magnolia are inevitable, and though Magnolia remains the superior film in the annals of cinema, Lantana deserves to stand alone and on its own merits. It is a fantastic film. It goes by in a breeze and leaves you wanting more, which is always a good sign.
Almost all of the characters were all well drawn and sufficiently intriguing that I wanted to know a great deal more about each and every one of them, outside of the main story being told here. The neighbors of Zat’s mistress (played by Daniela Farinacci and Vince Colosimo) in particular were phenomenal and there were several times I wish we’d seen more of them. We’re denied that because Colosimo’s character serves as a red herring, but I’d love to see the two of them together again in another film. They really grounded the film for me, and completely exemplified the sense of Aussie charm and ardent nature.
It has problems, sure, but overall the positives outweigh the negatives, and that seems to be the message behind the film anyway. And if the film can inspire that same mentality in its audience, the world might be a better place.