Dir: Ray Lawrence. Australia. 2001. 120 mins.

Opening the 48th Sydney Film Festival, the world premiere of Lantana was received by a packed and celebrity-strewn audience with pin-drop intensity and warm regard. Ray Lawrence is an outstanding commercials director but this is his first feature since the highly regarded Bliss, the official Cannes entrant in 1985. With immaculate production values and an appealing international cast, this "adult mystery" could well make a significant impact in world arthouses after its local release in October. In fact the stylish, mature elegance of this psychological thriller for adults ' which has been adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking In Tongues - happily recalls the brilliant Losey/Pinter partnership of the late 60s - not, it must be admitted, much of a lure for the under-35s. But, though they may need guidance on the meaning of the Australian-centered title, it is splendid that there may be international adult audiences waiting impatiently for such a challenging, honest and deeply-felt reflection on modern marriage.

As many Australian gardeners know, the local lantana bush is a fast-growing weed that, although producing exotic flowers on the surface, hides a central core of impenetrable, spiky undergrowth. Dramatist Andrew Bovell has used the outlawed pest throughout his impressive screenplay, initially as the dark depository for the body of a dead woman, later as the snare that holds a vital missing shoe, and throughout as a potent (though nicely unstressed) symbol of his main theme: the dense complexities of middle-aged long-term relationships.

Swiftly and effortlessly, Lawrence and Bovell introduce four uneasy couples. Leon (LaPaglia) is an unfit detective, increasingly aware of only "going through the motions" with his confused wife Sonja (Armstrong) who, struggling with an uncommunicative husband and two teenage sons, seeks secret help from American therapist Valerie (Hershey). But Valerie is herself at a bleak crossroads in her marriage to John (Rush), a university dean, for since the murder of their daughter all communications between the otherwise articulate couple has ceased. Leon begins a hungry affair with lonely Jane (Blake), who is separated from her baffled husband Pete (Robbins) and who huddles in their home next door to macho, unemployed Nik (Colosimo) and his overworked nurse wife Paula (Farinacci).

These troubled, interlocking lives are revealed in a series of beautifully staged and subtly acted scenes whose cumulative tensions explode into a central act of violent death. Detective Leon is called upon to investigate suspects and follow lines of investigation which soon mirror and eventually directly involve his own personal dilemmas, betrayals and guilt. Anthony LaPaglia delivers the dramatic goods, lashing out in unfocused rages, breaking down in moving moments of self-realisation; while Geoffrey Rush is very fine indeed as an icy intellectual unable to deal with his (or his haunted wife's) stranded emotions.

But as good as the men are, it's the women whose struggles remain most in the mind: Hershey's doomed realist, battling to make sense of her cruel loss; Armstrong's confused wife and mother, always giving more love than she gets in return; Blake's sensational portrait of loneliness, sexual hunger and anger at the approach of middle age; Farinacci's indomitable trust in her dodgy husband, the film's only relationship blessed with youthful optimism.

Once the fascinating interplay between the leading characters is overtaken by the less interesting requirements of the murder mystery (no matter how sophisticated) tension slackens a little; and Lawrence can't quite disguise the absurdities when the disparate parties begin unexpectedly to meet each other. But Lantana is always beautiful to watch, with grey, drizzly Sydney locations looking suitably menacing and melancholic.

Prod cos MPB, Australian Film Finance Corporation, Jan Chapman Films

Aust/NZ dist Palace Films

Int'l sales Beyond Films

Prod Jan Chapman

Scr Andrew Bovell, based on his play Speaking In Tongues

Cinematography Mandy Walker

Prod des Kim Buddee

Ed Karl Sodersten

Music Paul Kelly

Main cast Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry

Armstrong, Rachael Blake, Vince Colosimo, Daniela Farinacci, Glenn Robbins