Right, deep breath, here's the set up: Leon (the revelatory Anthony LaPaglia) is a bear-like cop whose life is slipping away. His marriage is crumbling, his affair is disgusting him, his explosive temper worrying him, his dodgy heart paining him. His wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), whose marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) has been crippled by their daughter's death. Then there's Patrick (Peter Phelps), a gay patient of Valerie's who talks of an affair he's having with a married man - - a man Valerie suspects is her own husband. And let's not forget the apparently happily married Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci). They live next door to Jane (Rachel Blake), the woman who Leon's shagging behind Sonja's back...
Confused? Don't be, because it all makes perfect, beautifully plotted sense when you're watching Ray Lawrence's soulful drama. Already dubbed the Australian Short Cuts or Magnolia, this is one of those multi-charactered, multi-layered movies usually associated with Robert Altman. But whereas Big Bob often does away with plot altogether or, as in Gosford Park, shows little regard for such propulsive mechanics even when they are present, Lantana hangs its entangled relationships, wounded emotions and acute observations on a totally gripping police investigation.
Okay, so the final revelation is deliberately throwaway to the point of being dramatically disappointing, but that's because it's the exploration that matters, not the revelation - and it's during the uneasy grappling towards a solution that we see all the characters struggle to get to grips with themselves - and each other. These are believable people living believable lives, and their inability to reach out and connect, to communicate even, is heartbreaking. Hope glimmers but despair smothers; happiness titillates but sorrow numbs; intimacy's the goal, loneliness the reality.
Painful viewing? Damn right, but better to feel pain than nothing at all.