Zat’s Life

The Australian film Lantana runs a slight risk of getting lost in the shadow of the more highly acclaimed In the Bedroom. Like the American film, Lantana deals with the angst parents feel after the death of a child, and both films are unusually nuanced as they dig beneath their characters’ skins. Taken together they feel like something new in English-language film–art films about the middle-aged and middle-class.

But while In the Bedroom resembles a chamber piece for a limited number of players, Lantana is more of a symphony. Its screenplay (written by Andrew Bovell, and taken from his play, Speaking in Tongues) tracks four Sydney couples–three unhappy and one essentially blissful. In the center of everything is Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a cop in the throes of professional and personal burnout. He’s a glum-looking man (LaPaglia is much beefier and droopy-faced than when I last saw him), who has been reduced to two emotional modes: anger and ennui. Late in the film, after he’s come close to ruining his life, Zat will describe himself as being “totally fucking numb.” The film doesn’t suggest that Zat’s stressful police work has caused his burnout. His female colleague manages to fight the bad guys very nicely without constantly having to swallow her own rage. Instead his numbness is the result of Zat’s self-imposed definition of masculinity. He’s all cop, all the time. If he catches himself, or any other male, breaking one of the laws regulating male Anglo-Saxon emotional behavior, he ruthlessly makes the bust.

But that uptight uprightness is coming unraveled as the story begins. Zat has strayed into the first sexual affair of his married life, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand himself. When his illicit partner starts wondering where all this is going to lead, he tells her that he’s still in love with his wife. When she asks the next logical question, “Then what are you doing here with me?” Zat can’t begin to answer her.

Bovell and Lawrence further explore the depth and nature of male unhappiness with the character of John Knox, played by Geoffrey Rush. At first glance, that Y chromosome is all Knox and Zat appear to have in common, though we learn later that they are in fact spiritual kin. Knox is the dean of a law school, and he’s married to an American-born therapist, Dr. Valerie Sommers (Barbara Hershey), who is slowly coming unraveled two years after their young daughter was murdered. When Sommers disappears under mysterious circumstances, Zat’s investigation leads him quickly to the husband, Knox. When they meet, Zat snarls, “You’re some kinda academic, aren’t you?” as if that fact alone allowed him to write off Knox as less than a man. Doubts about Knox’s sexuality begin to steer the course of the investigation.

But in fact Knox is every bit the man Zat is–which is precisely the point of Lantana. After his wife’s disappearance, we learn that the repressed and depressed Knox is in fact seething with rage–at the death of his daughter, at his wife’s resulting dependence on him. On women’s need “to know what we’re thinking,” an apparently bland line that Rush delivers with a snarl of his own. Like Zat, Knox tamps down his emotions with just the right measure of scotch, applied nightly. Like Zat, Knox has cheated on his wife. Unlike Zat, however, Knox can come clean about his weakness.

The women in Lantana aren’t any happier than the men. Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong) goes to a counselor–Dr. Sommers, of course. But unlike her husband, Sonja locates her unhappiness outside herself. She tells Sommers that she likes “being middle-aged,” and “likes the wrinkles around my eyes.” It’s her marriage that feels dead, but she thinks she could survive its collapse. Sonja suspects her husband is having an affair, and how could she not, as Zat looks like the guiltiest and unhappiest husband in all of New South Wales when he finally manages to go home, after one of his trysts or after a night of solitary drinking. When Dr. Sommers asks what she would do if she found out he was having an affair, Sonja says that she would probably leave him, adding that the real betrayal would be that he hadn’t told her about it. Sonja is but one of many characters in the film who challenges Zat to start telling the truth.

he film rather cunningly tricks the viewer into thinking it’s a murder mystery. But it’s the “why,” not the “who,” that’s important here. Even though the film tracks multiple lives and tells multiple stories–including that of the working-class couple who, in their emotional honesty, make for a sharp contrast with the deceit-filled marriages around them–Lantana is ultimately Leon’s story. LaPaglia has always been an agreeable presence, but after his work here I’ll have to change the way I think about him. With the subtlest shift of his eyes, he manages to convey the full weight of his character’s troubled psyche. He’s especially good when Zat is put on the defensive, and forced to lie about himself and his marriage. Everybody he tries to interrogate about the missing Dr. Sommers turns his questions back on him.

The play between Rush and LaPaglia is particularly satisfying. Rush’s Knox gives the appearance of being an honest man. He tosses off damning observations about himself and gives the impression of complete candor–until he finally caves at the film’s end and admits to something worse about himself than killing his wife. For some time I’ve held Rush’s Oscar for his performance in Shine against him. The role of the gifted pianist who has a nervous breakdown during a performance and is lost in the fog of mental illness for years was too easy–the kind of role that Hollywood loves to reward. But Rush is in fact a great actor. His character here is probably the most richly developed secondary character in recent film. With almost no overt show of emotion, he’s able to reveal very rare levels of complexity and depth, and to the extent that any fictional character can, his John Knox feels like a real human being.

The women aren’t as compelling, and Barbara Hershey is the one dud here. Her character disintegrates in a way that is either unaccounted for in the script, or inadequately rendered by the actress. Armstrong is fine, if not quite compelling as Sonja Zat. Ingmar Bergman, who knows a thing or two about the middle-aged, middle-class art film, always proclaimed himself more interested in his female characters than their male counterparts. He said that women have wider emotional ranges and simply present better material. Pedro Almodovar has made much the same point. But writer Bovell and director Lawrence take the opposite tack here, to great effect. They and their actors find the emotional depths that self-enforced notions of manhood cover up, but do not eliminate.

David Theis is a freelance writer in Houston and the author of Rio Ganges, a novel that will be published later this year.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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Published at 12:00 am CST