Lantana movie (2001) – A finely crafted crime drama on relationship from Australia

This film essay focuses on a Australian movie called 'Lantana'. Here we'll look at how Lantana differs from other similar crime thrillers. We'll look in detail about its story, the characters and the way the movie projects its story on to the viewers.

Lantana is an Australian movie released in the year 2001, directed by Ray Lawrence and starring Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey. Touted to be a crime thriller , the movie received appreciation from both the critics and the audience alike. Let us have a look at what makes this one of the special films. But before that, let us first understand what ‘Lantana’ means.

‘Lantana’ flower

Lantana (Lantana camera) is a type of tropical evergreen shrub belonging to the family of verbena and sprouts tiny colored flowers. This species, native to Central and South America and readily grows into thickets, was transplanted to Australia around 1841. They prospered initially and then became a nuisance. Within Australia, it has invaded more than 4 million hectares. 

Lantana camera
Lantana camera

Lantana was termed as a ‘key threatening process’ (KTP) by the NSW Scientific Committee. Brought into Australia as an ornamental plant, Lantana soon took over the country’s lands and became a threat to the nation. The flowers, brought to the country with love and affection, soon gathered a nationwide hatred.

So, why is this named after a flower species that has become a nuisance for an entire country now? 

Let us try to understand the movie and its plot in detail to find an answer to the above question. 

The beginning

Lantana, the film, begins panning through the densely grown shrubs to show us a body of a dead woman. One of her shoes is hanging around one of the bushes. The scene perfectly sets up the stage for the viewers to ramp up their curiosity. We begin to wonder who that woman is. Why is she here? Why is she murdered? And most importantly, Who did this to her?

Most of the crime thrillers follow this type of opening sequence. The camera slowly moves, like a lion eyeing on its prey, observing the aftermaths of a brutal crime. But, things get different after that initial shot. The viewers will then be introduced to the lead characters, prominently the protagonist, who arrive at the crime scene to begin the investigation. The story then moves towards the act of him catching the crime doer and unraveling the mysteries behind the murder.

Lantana - the initial shot
Lantana – the initial shot

Lantana – how it differs from the other crime thrillers

With a similar opening, Lantana looks like the usual crime movies. The particular panning shot is phenomenal in the sense that it sends chills down our spines and piques our interest. The film looks promising with that sort of a beginning. 

However, the twist in the plot comes early on. Just as we expect the policemen to enter into the picture of the crime scene, the very next shot shows us a bedroom sex scene between a police officer and a woman. As we try to find a minute link between the crime and the bedroom scene, the film moves on to the personal lives of 6 different characters – Police detective Leon Zat and his wife, Sonja Zat, Nik and his wife, Paula D’Amato, John Knox, and his wife, Dr. Valerie Somers. It begins to focus on the personal endurance of these characters. This sudden change of plot makes us wonder what relationship these characters have to the crime. 

Lantana takes an unconventional approach as to how to frame a crime thriller. While the conventional films try to get the interest of the viewers piped up from that initial scene, Lantana slows down. It moves away from the scene, moves away from the action, and gets personal. We, along with the movie, forget about the initial crime and begin to take an interest in the characters’ lives. 

There are a few moments at the initial stages where we begin to wonder if the movie is ever going to get back to the crime. But that expectation is only momentary. Lantana has a different story in store for us. 

Knowing the players of the film

As we get deeper into the characters’ personal lives, we begin to understand the tensions existing between them. We first follow Police detective Leon Zat and his wife. Leon is a successful detective who seems not to mind the tiring shifts his job requires him to perform. Sonja, his wife, also understands the nature of her husband’s job and leaves him be. She busies herself by joining a dance class. They are married for quite some years now and have two sons. While things seem to look normal from the outside, We understand Leon is not happy with his life. He is having an affair with one of the women from Sonja’s dancing class and hence the bedroom scene.  

While Sonja seems to believe in Leon, she confesses to her psychiatrist about her fear that her husband might have an affair with someone else. Dr. Valerie Somers, her psychiatrist, is married to John Knox. She tries to comfort her by understanding the feelings of Sonja. She does all this while trying to heal over the pain of her daughter’s death. As a means to get over her loss, Somers writes a book about her daughter. With the success of the book and the bulk of her loyal patients, she manages to keep herself busy. 

Lantana - Sonja, Leon's wife breaks down in front of her psychiatrist
Lantana – Sonja, Leon’s wife breaks down in front of her psychiatrist

However, that is not the case with her husband, John. He decides to mourn his daughter’s loss in a more secluded way by being alone and keeping things to himself. They gradually develop a crack in their relationship shell. 

Jane O’Mary, with whom Leon is having an affair, is split from her husband due to incompatibility reasons. By spending time with Leon, she gets over her marriage memories and loneliness. She lives next door to Nik and his wife, Paula D’Amato. Jane spends her day time watching over Nik and his kids through her windows. As Jane spends her nights with Leon, she gets her guilty pleasure by watching the peaceful lives of her neighbors. 

With Paula working as a nurse, Nik spends his time at home helping the kids and aiding his wife in cooking. He enjoys his slow-paced life. With all the troubles with the lead couples introduced till then, Nik and Paula seem to be the only couple whose relationship seems to be on the fairer end. They are the only ‘happy couple’ in the story.

The conflicting Emotions

The ploy to take the viewers’ attention away from the crime works like a charm. We are attracted to the stories of these characters. Every little act that seems to disturb the balance between their relationships makes us feel sad for the characters.

Lantana turns out to be a creeping meditation on relationships. All the characters involved in the movie are affected by their relationships with their partners. The tensions between them are so real that we are unable to pinpoint the mistakes of their actions. Every action seems to be the correct one when seen from the doer’s perspective while at the same time seems to be the worst thing a person could ever do to his/her spouse. This confusing feeling from the viewers’ side makes this film very special.

For example, the actions of Leon seems so wrong when seen from his wife Sonja’s point of view. She feels sorry to convey to her psychiatrist that her husband might be involved in an affair. But for Leon, the affair is the only way to cope up with the stresses of his work. He has to divert himself away from personal life tensions and professional life troubles. He is bored with his life as a father and a loving husband despite loving his family. 

Truth is as vital to human relationships as breath is to life

Dr. Valerie Somers, Lantana

The same is the case with John and Valerie. While John thinks of Valerie’s attempt at writing a book as a means to show off, Valerie feels that her daughter lives through the story. She also feels justice done to her daughter through her virtual presence everywhere. Again, we see a single situation interpreted in a correct way form both parties’ perspectives. While Valerie sees John’s seclusion as a means to get away from her and start a new relationship, it is inexpressible mourning for John. 

There is a remarkable scene in the movie where Valerie doubts her husband for having an affair with one of her clients. She conveys the fear, confusion, and surprise through her eyes and expressions (Barbara Hershey excels as Dr. Valerie Somers). The harshness of that fact hits her so hard. Even the particular conversation between Valerie and her patient looks opposite, with the patient in full control of the doctor’s emotions.

Lantana - Valerie doubts her husband to have been involved in an affair
Lantana – Valerie doubts her husband to have been involved in an affair

The mystery of the initial crime

 With those expressions untold to her husband, Valerie goes missing. Leon and his partner are assigned the task of finding the doctor. With a missing wife case like this, the husband naturally becomes the prime suspect. There are a couple of interrogation scenes between Leon and John. These scenes represent yet another high point of the film. Leon and John’s conversation about their relationships would have turned out to be a blunt excuse in any other movie. But here it means so much to say out the inner guilt of both Leon and John. Here again, John becomes the person in control at a few places, rather than Leon.

When the film eventually gets to the point of crime, we are disheartened to find Valerie to be the victim. As we move along with Leon to find the murderer, we are shocked to find the clues and circumstantial pieces of evidence pointing to Nick. Despite the clues leading us to Nick, we couldn’t imagine him in the shoes of the murderer. With back to back blows, we are left stranded in our thoughts. We look for any solace in the final act that might make us feel less guilty, at least for the sake of the characters to have any distant hope.

Lantana’s ideology of relationships

Unfortunately, ‘Lantana’ doesn’t stop there. The ultimate twist doesn’t provide us the solace we eagerly awaited for, but rather it hooks up our minds farther into the unfathomable train of thoughts.

Oh! How good we are at deceiving ourselves.


The twist in the final act of the movie ‘Lantana’ only strengthens its ideology on the problems with relationships and trust. It paves a means for us, along with the characters of the film, to reimagine our ideas on life. It establishes the fact that a simple mistrust could easily strangle the bond between us, which has been strengthened meticulously over time. 

When we ultimately crack the mystery of Dr.Valerie’s death, we should have rejoiced. However, if that had happened, the film would have been a total failure – A failure in the sense that it would have been less impactful. It would have positioned itself away from its primary story – the exploration of the mistrust in relationships. Lantana would have become another well-executed thriller. 

A deeper understanding of the movie is the key

But Lantana is not that. It is not the movie that only renders our curious minds a mind-bending thriller (which is what most of the crime thrillers try to achieve). It ventures beyond feeding the brain and tries to enrich the soul. It imparts a feeling to the environment of the crime by making us wonder about the actions taking place in front of us. The undeniable truth that this thriller could be any one of our lives cracks our shell. 

Lantana - Dr. Valerie Somers sums up the movie's philosophy - Truth is as vital to human relationships as breath is to life
Lantana – Dr. Valerie Somers sums up the movie’s philosophy – Truth is as vital to human relationships as breath is to life

Apart from being a well-staged crime thriller, it stands out as a powerful meditation of trust among the characters on screen. Every incident traces back to one or many of the characters’ actions. It is one of the rare films where the unique twist of the last act acts as an aid to the main plot and not just a standalone high point of the film. 

Lantana turns out to be very special for this very aspect.

Lantana camera and Lantana

So why is the film named after the flower Lantana camera?

Trust – The primary focus of the movie seems to be on the trust between human relationships. The crime is designed as a side story to aids its primary intention. 

It is this trust that everyone cherishes at the beginning of a relationship, be it a marriage or a simple friendship. However, if that trust comes under threat, the relationship becomes weaker and weaker thereon. And it gets too difficult to patch it up to its original position. The relationship becomes a heavy burden to hold on.

Lantana, the plant, did the same to Australia. At the time of its introduction, people put their trust in the plant and started to enjoy its presence. However, as time went by, the plant began to take control and spread beyond human control. It lost the trust that humans kept on the species. Now, Lantana, apart from being a national threat, is one of the most hated species of Australia. 

In my opinion, this could be the reason behind Lantana’s title. 

Lantana <——> Trust 


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