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While on a journey of discovery in exotic India, beautiful young Ruth Barron falls under the influence of a charismatic religious guru. Her desperate parents then hire PJ Waters, a macho cult de-programmer who confronts Ruth in a remote desert hideaway. But PJ quickly learns that he's met his match in the sexy, intelligent and iron-willed Ruth! Written by
Kate Winslet plays Ruth Barron, a young Australian woman who goes to India and becomes smitten with the touch of a charismatic guru, so much so that she changes her name and forsakes her family to stay in India and attend to and worship the guru. Her parents become alarmed. Her mother goes to India to trick her into coming back to Australia so that she can be deprogrammed by a professional from the United States that they have hired (P.J. Waters as played by Harvey Keitel).
What director Jane Campion does with this once familiar theme is most interesting. She puts the deprogrammer to the test, so to speak, and initiates a struggle of will between the deprogrammer and his young charge. The key scene arrives as Ruth comes naked into P.J.'s arms in order to test his professionalism (and her sexual power). I don't know about you but I think a naked and passionate Kate Winslet would test any man's motivation and make him think twice about what he really wants to do.
The psychological idea behind the story is this question, What is the nature of the guru's hold on his flock? Is it spiritual or is it profane? Do the young women who follow him desire him as an alpha male or is it spiritual deliverance they seek? Naturally Ruth believes the latter and the deprogrammer the former. But what is the deprogammer's motivation? Is this just a job for him or does he feel he is helping to free his clients from some kind of mental slavery? Or is he just another sort of phony guru himself? Keitel in black hair and black moustache and devil's mini goatee dressed in black with a menacing look and a lot of physical energy (despite being 60-years-old when this film was released) contrasts sharply with Winslet's youthful beauty and beguiling voluptuousness. Strength of character is something Kate Winslet brings to any role, even including her outstanding performance as Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996), a role that is usually played wiltingly. Here one senses that her strong will and determination are going to be quite a match for the deprogrammer who gives himself three days alone with her to break her attachment to the guru.
Two questions: One, if he is successful, will that just mean that she has transferred her allegiance from the Indian guru to him? Will it mean that his psychological strength is greater than that of the guru in far-off India? Two, in what respect is such a forced confinement with someone who is in physical control going to lead to a variant of the "Stockholm syndrome" experienced by some women held hostage, e.g., flight attendants on hijacked planes, and the famous case of Patty Hearst? Will the captive become enamored of her captor? Campion handles this most interesting theme by focusing on the sexual and carnal nature of the relationships. The test of will between P.J. and Ruth becomes a question of Can she seduce him and thereby strip him of his professionalism? The movie is candid about sex and sexuality in a way that emphasizes the power dynamics of sexual relationships. There is some full frontal nudity and the sex scenes are steamy beyond what one usually sees in an R-rated film. (If seeing Kate Winslet naked might offend you, I recommend you close your eyes.) Harvey Keitel did an outstanding job in a very demanding role and was entirely convincing (despite being a little too old for the part); but as usual Kate Winslet completely took over the film with her commanding countenance, her superior acting skills, her great concentration and her mesmerizing charisma. If there is a better, more captivating young actress working today, I don't know who she is.
Her role here might be compared with her performance in Hideous Kinky (1998) in which she goes to Morocco to find enlightenment among the Sufis. That is a more charming film, and she is outstanding, but this one gives greater range to her skills.
Notable (and watchable!) as a counterpoint to Winslet's Ruth is sexy and sleazy Sophie Lee as Yvonne who is so taken with P.J. that she fairly begs him to make love to her. Also impressive is Julie Hamilton as the woebegone and stumbling mother.
Of course I would say see this for Kate Winslet, and if you are a fan, you sure don't want to miss Holy Smoke since it includes one of her best performances; however, what really impressed me is the original and daring conception and direction by Jane Campion who is best known for The Piano (1993), a film that received an Oscar nomination for the best direction and starred Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill.
So see this for Jane Campion who is not afraid to show human nature in the raw.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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