Jane Campion's 1992 film The Piano was an intoxicating work of art, a film of such beauty and power that it literally took my breath away. Nothing the New Zealand-born writer/director has done before or since even comes close to matching it in form, content or sensibility. And her latest film, Holy Smoke, sadly is no exception.
Starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, Holy Smoke marks a return, of sorts, to previous Campion territory, the filmmaker's 1989 feature debut Sweetie, a dark comedy about a narcissistic, manipulative, obese teenager and her repressed, phobic sister. All of Campion's films (The Portrait of a Lady, An Angel at My Table) embody some elements of psychological dysfunction, spiritual struggle and sexual politics. All too frequently these themes play out among a motley cast of grotesque, unsympathetic characters.
Holy Smoke isn't half as off-putting as Sweetie, a film that, to be fair, won numerous awards, both in and outside of Australia (most of Campion's films have won prizes and divided critics). Holy Smoke, written by Campion and her sister Anna, centers on Ruth (Winslet), a genial, self-reliant young woman who travels to India only to come under the spell of a spiritual guru. Her family back in Sydney concocts a scheme to get her home, then hires a slick American cult expert named P.J. Waters (Keitel) to deprogram her.
Ruth and P.J. retreat to a hut in the outback for the three-day "exiting" process. What ensues is a classic battle of wills that evolves into a most unexpected, sexualized power struggle. As the balance of power shifts back and forth, smugness turns to vulnerability, certainty to confusion, confidence to pitiable surrender. As the story drags on, the viewer's irritation mounts; life is too short to waste on such fatuous material. Although Winslet does a nice job of conveying Ruth's youthful exuberance and slow, painful evolution, it is difficult to muster much sympathy for her character. And if you don't care about Ruth, the rest of the cast is really in trouble.
Decked out in cowboy boots, black jeans and a ridiculously tight shirt, P.J. cuts a ludicrous figure. It's impossible to believe that he has successfully deprogrammed nearly 200 cult members; who would take anything he says seriously? The standoff between him and Ruth, which lies at the story's core, never sparks our interest, and P.J.'s mental and emotional disintegration and eventual redemption fail to arouse any sense of compassion.
The supporting cast proves even more annoying. Although Ruth's mother, Miriam (Julie Hamilton), engenders sympathy, the rest of the lot -- Ruth's slacker brothers, dippy sister-in-law and assorted friends -- are all misfits or simpletons. Their physical antics fall into the realm of slapstick; their approach to life is the emotional equivalent. Although well intentioned, they are so obtuse they set my teeth on edge. You don't want to spend 10 minutes with them, much less two hours.
If Campion has a message in all this -- something about the eternal battle of the sexes -- it is far from clear. Perhaps the movie needs to be taken simply at face value: as a comedy, of sorts, about two specific individuals. In any case, it is an inert "entertainment."
I will always be grateful to Campion for The Piano, a film that was a perfect fusion of image and emotion. I will never understand how that same artist could produce a half-dozen other movies that I so completely dislike. Campion, who writes as well as directs, obviously is making the films she wants to make. Sadly, none of them speaks with the clarity or significance of her one major work.
Opens Feb. 11 at the Tivoli.