Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke


AUS/USA 1999, dir. Jane Campion, stars Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel

Holy Smoke is typical Jane Campion – as with The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, there are plenty of ideas here, many of them remarkably good, many remarkably bad. Stitched together to form a feature film, the results are maddeningly uneven, but always worth seeing. Perhaps the problem is length – it may be no coincidence that Campion’s most satisfying work to date remains her 1984 short, Passionless Moments.

The best thing about Holy Smoke is probably Kate Winslet. She works wonders with the central role of Ruth, who undergoes a spiritual transformation during a trip to India. Her family back home in Australia fear the worst and trick her into returning, whereupon she is made to undergo ‘deprogramming’ from a hired American expert, Harvey Keitel.

For most of its length, Holy Smoke is original, witty, skilfully made and extremely well acted. In the final 20 minutes or so, however, things go careering out of control as the claustrophobic battle of wills between Winslet and Keitel heads into bizarre psychological territories which Campion doesn’t seem to have fully thought through. Compared with what has gone before, the final scenes simply fail to convince, and the film feels in dire need of at least one rewrite. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, and the scenes concentrating on Winslet’s boorish Aussie family, though marvellously entertaining, seem to have been spliced in from another movie altogether.

Campion seems determined to go her own way – but the danger is that she doesn’t appear willing to learn from her past mistakes. It’s impossible to fault the acting (though Pam Grier has zero to do in a curiously minor role) and Campion stages many scenes with terrific visual verve, but Holy Smoke provides proof, once again, that a half-baked script is always an impossible hurdle to overcome.


by Neil Young
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