In 1930 Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) an American socialite in search of debt relief and a fresh start transfers to Amalfi Italy. Her reputation as an indiscriminant adulterer comes along and she’s quickly the talk of the small town. Amidst her misadventures with married men she stumbles upon Robert (Mark Umbers) and Meg (Scarlett Johansson) a young blissfully married couple from America. Robert immediately strikes up a relationship with the older temptress and it’s immediately assumed by the resident paparazzi—a.k.a. citizens with binoculars and nothing better to do—that he is the latest prey. Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is being courted by another wealthier man named Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) who can’t help but fall for her despite tepid interest on her end. When Meg learns of her husband’s rumored paramour she reacts hastily uncovering surprises that shock and affect all involved. The acting is where A Good Woman suffers. The female leads while both rightfully esteemed actresses are both miscast. Hunt’s Mrs. Erlynne has a world-wise and profound retort for every question thrown her way but her delivery just doesn’t fit her words; she seems uninspired but it’s much more likely her trying too hard. Johansson meanwhile is an anachronism in the film: She is an impossible sell for a reason having nothing to do with physical beauty or acting chops—she’s completely and simply at long last out of her element. But Wilkinson as always shines here as the pathetic yet adorable Tuppy. It’s perfectly plausible to see him in 1930s Italy—or any setting whatsoever. His eloquence befits the time and place and he makes his sad little man engaging funny and relatable even today. Director Mike Barker is charged with bringing A Good Woman adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan to the big screen. It’s a tall order to adapt someone as revered as Wilde especially on the heels of the widely lauded adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but Barker comes through for the most part. Luckily for him the lush mesmerizing scenery of the setting is at the forefront. And the director would’ve succeeded in transporting us back to the whole exotic pristine milieu had it not been for the aforementioned actresses’ inabilities to do the same. Nonetheless he holds up his end retelling a typically complex Wilde tale of love and narrow-mindedness without butchering or overstating the message.
Set in Sydney Australia the story revolves around Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) a police detective in his mid-40s who is married with two teenage sons. He struggles to keep his life under control but feels it slipping away from him especially after he has a fling with a woman Jane (Rachael Blake) whom he meets in a dancing class he is taking with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Jane is also surviving the breakup of her marriage to Pete (Glenn Robbins) and is simply lonely. She lives next door to Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci) a young couple with three children who seem to have a strong and happy marriage even after certain events nearly tear it apart. Sonja on the other hand suspects her husband is cheating and talks to her therapist Valerie (Barbara Hershey) about it. Valerie urges Sonja to confront Leon and tell him her feelings. Meanwhile Valerie and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) are having problems of their own trying to come to grips with the murder of their young daughter a few years before. Somehow the lives of these eight people intersect when Leon becomes embroiled in a missing persons investigation.
For the most part the ensemble cast of mostly Australian actors is quite excellent. Many might not know the fact that LaPaglia who usually plays tough Italian New York types (One Good Cop So I Married an Axe Murderer) is actually a native Australian. Hearing his lilting and natural accent is refreshing and he gives his best acting effort yet as a man in the throes of a midlife crisis. Armstrong also turns in a quiet and subtle performance as the wife Sonja who eventually understands her husband's turmoil even though it wounds her deeply. Hershey and Rush play well off of one another as the damaged couple knee-deep in the grieving process particularly Hershey who gives an interesting twist on a successful therapist spiraling into her own self-doubt and despair. She proves once again how great an actress she really is. The other supporting characters lend depth to the story with Colosimo and Farinacci as Nik and Paula standing out the most. Their intense love affair starkly contrasts the messed-up lives of the rest of the couples.
Lantana refers to a type of plant which is filled with beautiful and exotic flowers but hides a thick thorny growth underneath. The opening shot takes us from the middle of this thorny bush where we see what appears to be a body entangled in it and pans out in a strange and slow way to show a great vista (reminiscent of David Lynch's opening to Blue Velvet). This pretty much sums up the feel of the movie--strange and slow--but not always in a positive light. While the performances are all good the pacing and subject matter brings the film down. The actions of the characters aren't always enough to keep up the momentum and the only compelling parts are when the actual mystery of the investigation start to unfold. You aren't sure who's guilty and who's not and the movie keeps you guessing until the very end. Yet the meandering personal dramas begin to get stagnant. Watching dysfunctional people deal with their marriages is something we've seen many times before.