(2001) *** 1/2 R
121 min. Lions Gate. Director: Ray Lawrence. Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake.

First, the camera pushes in, into thick underbrush of lantana, revealing an unknown woman's body. For the next two hours, the film, in effect, slowly pulls back to reveal greater perspective and truth. In Lantana, Australian director Ray Lawrence offers an honest view of dishonesty and, principally, an examination of hope and dashed hopes in human relationships. In other words, it's about trust.

Lantana's nuanced, studied take on trust issues has serious underpinnings but also a ripple of black comedy. Adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues, the film is principally an actor's feast, with sensational work by Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia, and Geoffrey Rush, among lesser-known Aussie talents.

From the aforementioned body, we move to the humping bodies of LaPaglia and Rachael Blake, both of whom have wedding rings pledged by absent spouses. Next, we discover the two know each other from dance lessons LaPaglia's reluctantly taking with wife Kerry Armstrong. Pull back to a domestic scene establishing his sons, then a workplace scene establishing he's a cop. Hershey, in a surprisingly effective lecture scene which outlines the central theme of the film, is revealed to be a psychiatrist, and we observe two men in her audience. Shortly, we discover one is a troublesome patient and the other her troublesome husband (Rush), with whom she's recently shared a personal tragedy. And so it goes, with clever visual-aural transitions almost subconsciously linking characters and situations for the audience (indeed, the characters mirror each other throughout). Inevitably, the plot threads converge and force uncomfortable introversion for the characters.

The cast is great all-around, with Rush delivering an especially convincing variation on his emotionally fragile sad sacks. But the film belongs to Hershey and LaPaglia, each of whom cracks up under self-imposed pressure. Though it's hard to believe Hershey would so easily be unnerved by a patient as she is here (succumbing too easily to unprofessionalism), her emotional beats ring true. She can't find her way back to her husband since their trauma, and she has understandably lost the ability to trust which she daily preaches as crucial. Great lengths of film are spent observing Hershey think, process, and hurt, especially in a showcase sequence she carries entirely on her own, playing off of a phone. LaPaglia, meanwhile, eschews vanity entirely, allowing his philandering, hot-tempered husband to be the butt of jokes about his fumbling and selfish dishonesty. The joke is on the audience, of course, when he finally faces up to his once oblivious collusion with life's unremitting disappointment.

Lantana, a plant bright and colorful on the outside and thorny in its depths, is an unsurprising metaphor for this middle-aged navel-gazer about unfortunate reality encroaching on tightly-held dreams. But Lawrence's fresh approach and the potency of the performers elevate the timeworn material to eye level. On a humbler scale than a P.T. Anderson or Robert Altman collage, Lantana makes a case for relatively straightforward incisiveness. It's worth a once-over, to be sure.

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