8 September 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

Jane Campion is one of the most gifted visual directors working anywhere in the world. A former painter, Campion possesses a beautiful, virtually unrivaled sense of color, a consistently inventive use of the frame and poetic imagery that gives her work a charge and excitement.

Her new film, "Holy Smoke", presents overpowering evidence of her uncommon skills, although it also summons up memories of her first, and still finest feature, "Sweetie". Those comparisons unavoidably reference the troubling deficiencies of the current work.

Premiering in competition before playing in the New York Film festival to herald its October opening from Miramax Films, this remains a more emotionally accessible work than Campion's previous film, the Henry James literary adaptation "The Portrait of a Lady". But it also lacks the formal and stylistic ambition of that fascinating work. Given Miramax's marketing prowess and the star power of Kate Winslet, "Holy Smoke" should deliver some strong numbers, particularly in the upscale urban markets. But the movie clearly lacks the breakthrough commercial acceptance of Campion's third feature, "The Piano", so expectations should be appropriately gauged.

Ruth Barron (Winslet), the beautiful though disenchanted daughter of a middle-class Australian family who feels adrift and hopelessly lost, finds her apparent salvation in the philosophies of a guru during a soul-searching excursion to Delhi, India. Her family, horrified by these developments and convinced that she has become manipulated by a "cult," enlists the services of an American "exit counselor," PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), to break her ideological association with the guru.

Her mother (Julie Hamilton), concocting a story that Ruth's father is seriously ill, lures her back to Australia. There, the proper story unfolds through the confrontation of these magnetic personalities during a series of startling changes and movements, continually bending and twisting their knotty, elusive personalities to fit the circumstances.

Waters' strategy is founded on stages. By isolating his subject, stripping Ruth of her possessions and comfort and denying her identifying characteristics, he tempers and forges a new, distinct personality. Waters confines Ruth in a forlorn shack in the vast landscapes of the outback, believing through his own expert application of persuasion and control he will construct an entirely different personality.

But the reversal here is that the shrewd and cunning Ruth employs her own sexual voracity in a way that even blindsides Waters. In the course of their sessions, Waters becomes unmistakably fixated by the enchanting Ruth. In effect, the two meet, exchange identities and then reverse their roles.

The film is clearly aligned to Campion's previous work, films centered on examining independence and freedom, typically involving a woman whose need for definition and personal expression is thwarted by social conformity and restrictive sexual role-playing.

"Holy Smoke", based on an original script Campion wrote with her sister, Anna Campion ("Loaded"), is suffused with her ecstatically beautiful imagery. Drawing on the brooding, stark landscapes, clay and rock formations, Campion creates a succession of spellbinding moments. A shot of Ruth, her white diaphanous sari flowing in the breeze, is one of the most beautiful images of recent cinema.

In these passages there is a freedom and poetry that is sometimes devastating. The placement of the individuals against the wide open spaces, the almost absurd juxtaposition of form and personality, creates a series of startling moments. Campion beautifully counterpoints the physical against the emotional as Ruth and Waters both strive to realize some deeper aspect of their own personality and their own need for change and greater self-knowledge.

If "Holy Smoke" were limited to the sexual and ideological power games of Ruth and Waters, it would possibly achieve the concentration and emotional intensity of "Sweetie", but the extreme and, at times, almost grotesquely stylized eccentricities of Ruth's large family breaks apart the central relationship and alters, to increasingly disastrous effect, the balance and perspective of the movie.

The film is particularly harmed by an utterly unnecessary subplot involving a second woman's developing sexual infatuation with Waters. A welcome presence in any movie, Pam Grier makes a late appearance as Keitel's aggrieved American girlfriend, but the move appears almost desperate by that point. At that point, "Holy Smoke" cleaves into two separate personalities: between the interior, intellectual war fought between Winslet and Keitel, and the fight over possession of the two people by their respective families. By their nature, these are parts that are destined to remain far apart.

So the movie is dramatically frustrating, a fact not even Campion's formal mastery compensates for. As a result, Campion has made a good, at times unpredictable, film but not one that, like "Sweetie", shakes up the formal and emotional possibilities of the medium.

HOLY SMOKE

Miramax Films

A Jane Chapman production

A Jane Campion film

Producer: Jane Chapman

Director-writer: Jane Campion

Writer: Anna Campion

Director of photography: Dion Beebe

Editor: Veronika Jenet

Production designer/costumes: Janet Patterson

Music: Angelo Badalamenti

Cast:

Ruth: Kate Winslet

PJ Waters: Harvey Keitel

Mum: Julie Hamilton

Yvonne: Sophie Lee

Robbie: Daniel Wylie

Carol: Pam Grier

Running time -- 116 minutes

No MPAA rating


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