HOLY SMOKE(director/writer: Jane Campion; screenwriter: Anna Campion; cinematographer: Dion Beebe; editor: Veronika Jenet; cast: Kate Winslet (Ruth Barron), Harvey Keitel (P.J. Waters), Paul Goddard (Tim Barron), Pam Grier (Carol), Julie Hamilton (Miriam Barron), Sophie Lee (Yvonne Barron), Tim Robertson (Gilbert Barron), Austen Tayshus (Stan), Kerry Walker (Aunt Puss), Daniel Wyllie (Robbie Barron), George Mangos (Baba,The Guru); Runtime: 114; Miramax; 1999-Australia)
“How perceptive it is, is questionable.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Holy Smoke is a beautiful film to watch. It starts off with the film’s title written in smoky letters and moves on to Kate Winslet’s psychedelic India sojourn and then to her trying experiences in the naturally scenic Australian outback. The film has perfectly framed scenes and magnificent visuals, and a diverting story line to tune into even if it gives into its own silly side and becomes after a fast start mostly a film touching on many societal nerve points but then resorting to a politically safe response to all its pin-pricks about mind control.
How perceptive it is, is questionable. The acting is overwrought. The Aussie taste for slapdash comedy and vulgar dialogue is pronounced. But it does, on the serious side of its agenda, at least, raise some valid points about mind control and how men treat women. It is scripted by the Campion sisters (Jane & Anna) and directed by Jane, with a very noticeable woman’s touch and a ribald lustiness.
It opens with the Australian Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) in India with her girlfriend, attending an “enlightenment rally” where a charismatic Hindu guru, Baba, is performing. At the gathering there is a gaudily resplendent array of yellow and pink colors to dazzle the senses, seeming more like a light show for a Jefferson Airplane concert at the old Fillmore West than a religious ceremony. Ruth is moved by the experience and the guru’s touch of her forehead is the ultimate experience for her. She thereby seeks to stay in India and adapt to her new spiritual consciousness: changing her name to the one given her by Baba, studying meditation, wearing a sari, and endearing herself to the customs of India while living in a commune in New Delhi. She is hoping to straighten out whatever is bothering her about her present life, though she just came to India as a tourist with no interest in its religions. But her new motto might be when in India, do what the other tourists do!
Back home in Australia, Ruth’s traveling companion girlfriend tells Ruth’s parents that their girl has remained in India and has flipped-out, becoming brainwashed to join a cult. The distraught mother (Julie Hamilton) talks her reluctant husband (Tim Robertson) into paying for an expert American cult exit-er, someone who will deprogram her. The expert comes with the reputation of almost always succeeding, the only drawback is that he charges a hefty fee for his services. But first mom has to go to New Delhi to get her daughter to come back home on her own. She is advised by the local psychologist (Tayshus) to make up a lie, to say her father is dying and that once she is home then the deprogramer will take over until she is conditioned to go back to being normal again (which in this case means dressing up in a cowgirl outfit and going to the local pub for Disco Night, where you can get drunk or high on drugs).
Mom has trouble adjusting to India: its crowds, lack of modern toilets, and its strange culture. Her collapse comes at just the right time, as it prevents Ruth’s participation in a group wedding to Baba, and gets her to reluctantly board the plane and come back home to meet again her calculating, cartoonish, bourgeois family.
When back home in the suburbs of Sydney, the sari wearing Ruth sticks out from the rest of the middle-class family like a hippie at a Republican convention. The immediate family consists of her gay brother (Goddard), her macho brother (Wyllie) and his sexually frustrated scatter-brained wife (Sophie), and her philandering father and timidly nervous mother. All of their warmth and smiles seem disingenuous, especially when compared to the guru’s.
The deprogrammer, P.J. Waters (Keitel), arrives dressed in black and sporting snazzy cowboy boots, as if he’s a western gunfighter fighting the Indians. He stands off to the side in a smug pose while the men in the family surround the girl and corral her as if she were an animal, and force her to meet with the old and weary looking PJ. He has dyed his hair black and breathes arrogance as easily as a fish makes bubbles in the water. He also goes heavy on the mouth spray, making sure he is sweet-smelling at all times.
The two go off to the outback to be alone as P. J. puts into motion his 3-day Step Program, and the breakdown in the film’s sensibility becomes astronomical at this point. The film becomes a battle of the sexes, with the inevitable male-female struggle taking precedence over the heavy-handed religious aspects first introduced into the story. The expert cult deprogramer Keitel in a matter of one day loses his grip on what he has built his whole career on as he falls in love with Kate, which seemed far-fetched and unconvincing. That is not to say all these hyperventilating and sexy scenes weren’t watchable, as the audience gets a chance to see how really beautiful Kate’s breasts are and how base Keitel could be. He turns into a dirty old man and pursues Kate across the outback in a red dress with smears of lipstick over his face, supposedly getting his just desserts for being a male chauvinist pig.
Admittedly, it was funny to watch Harvey start to pray to Baba (God) for help in making this absurd love affair work.
What does this all mean is not too much, except it’s fun to see Keitel get his stereotypical male psyche bruised and to watch as Kate turns the tables on him. It was also easy on the eyes to watch the talented actress that Kate is, walk in the outback night in a sexually uninhibited way and have Keitel eyeball her naked body as she parades in front of him; and, to watch as he eagerly makes love to her in the gentle way a woman wants to be made love to (or deified).
Yes. Kate has won. Keitel can’t deprogram her. But, Ah! those breasts of Kate are really something to behold…but it is her personality that is the star of the film. She was the only one who wasn’t a shallow caricature and her performance was smashing, taking this zany script and making the most of it. The film actually worked in some skewed sense, as it dove into the question of mind control and the human condition. But it gave no answers, except the strong suggestion that having compassion for another person is what has to emerge from a person’s heart before they can be expected to be free from their bad karma. And, in a muddled way, this film lets the audience come to its own conclusions, which is why I imagine this film will get mixed reviews from most critics.
REVIEWED ON 4/23/2000 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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