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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!)
Bizarre. Fascinating. Flawed. Out of control. Definitely not ordinary.
I can use all those expressions to show what I feel about "Holy Smoke",
but I think they are not enough to express all my mixed feelings about
it. This is not an easy film to watch and more difficult than that to
review, but I can say that its qualities overcome the majority of its
"Holy Smoke" is a story about two totally different people. Ruth is a young Australian woman who travels to India and there starts to take part in a cult, getting fascinated with it. Her family starts to get worried about that and contracts PJ Waters, the other face of the coin, to make Ruth forgets her new beliefs and return to a normal life. They will spent some very unusual days in a hut on the desert, where we don't know who is in charge of the situation. Jane Campion writes and directs this weird and tense story with a wonderful passion. She tries to escape from all the clichés and succeeds in. There are some other stories of Ruth's weird family: her gay brother, her nymphomaniac sister-in-law, her ingenuous mother. This is the humorous part of the film, where you'll see even a sheep serving as a table at Ruth's house. But, strangely, "Holy Smoke" didn't feel as a dramatic comedy. It's one of those pictures that you can't define the genre with sure.
All the qualities and flaws of "Holy Smoke" come from the directing and the writing. There are some slow moments, exaggerated situations, some out of places scenes which could have been easily deleted. These are the main reasons why I didn't enjoy very much Jane Campion's earlier works: the overrated "The Piano" and the tasteless "The Portrait of a Lady". But here the flaws sometimes can be forgotten because Campion explains the story better than in her other works and succeeds in captivating the audience with an interesting story, discussing subjects as sex and religion with the right tone.
The one who really shines here is Kate Winslet. Harvey Keitel is great as always, but Ms. Winslet gives us an Oscar caliber performance. She doesn't have problem in appearing naked, sing, dress Keitel with a red dress and say what she thinks. I'm sure that her performance won't disappear in smoke, at least for me.
"Holy Smoke" was very criticized and snubbed, but it deserves a second chance. I agree that it is flawed and obviously not for everyone. But watch it with patience, pay attention at the subliminal messages, have some fun and think a little. It is worth the price of the ticket.
This film is highly misunderstood. Reading some of the reviews I found it hard to believe they were related to the film I'd just seen. This is so much more than a battle of the sexes, it covers lots of ground: boundary in therapy, the legitimacy of mystical experience, the complexities of family dysfunction, the ingenuity of the human spirit when heart and individuality are threatened. I regret that many viewers and reviews seem to have seen the humorous aspect of the film as an indication that the film's themes are lacking in substance. This is a worthy film. I regret that it's not getting its due.
I chose to see Holy Smoke as I've yet to be disappointed by Jane Campion,
Harvey Keitel or Kate Winslet. That hasn't changed. The Campion sisters
written a clever, funny and subtle story of how badly a family can bungle
their response when their religion of choice is passed over by one of their
own in favour of something they find a little too exotic and scary.
It has discreet moments of parody for observant viewers that shows up the shallowness of valuing one faith tradition over another. On the surface it's a hugely funny portrait of a hypocritical conservative family's farcical efforts to cling to normality when Winslet's character begins to branch out.
Look below the surface of the superb performances (especially Winslet and Keitel) and there are some wry observations about religious bigotry and parental disrespect. Winslet and Keitel bring their usual innate honesty and chutzpah to their roles, creating an intense sexual chemistry that is always under their total control.
While Winslet's is by far the most accurate Australian accent I've heard from a British actor, watch out for Sophie Lee, a very funny genuine article who I hope we'll see again soon. My only criticism is that Pam Grier was not allowed more involvement. I would have liked to have see her role developed far more.
Jane Campion's direction is refreshing as always. She gives us the intense, beautiful harshness of the vast Australian outback as well as zooming in on each character's frailties.
This film seems to have polarised opinions for some reason. Perhaps the subject matter has touched a few nerves or maybe some people have expected a different film. Go with an open mind and you may see the power and subtleties of this film.
Jane Campion takes us to dark territory again in 'Holy Smoke' but this
time with a touch of comedy. I am surprised at the negative response so
many have claiming that it is anti-feminist blah blah blah or that it
is a comedy with no substance. On the contrary, I find 'Holy Smoke' to
be a provocative piece full of substance.
The refreshing novel concept is pretty daring and Campion balances both dark humour and intensity. She tackles various relevant themes such as respect and care within the family (the mother is the only one who seems to be concerned about what happened to her daughter in India while the father is totally indifferent), sexual manipulation, spirituality vs brainwash, power control and so on. The viewer is totally absorbed on how the de-programmer 'saves' Ruth but things take unexpected turns and we start questioning who exactly this PJ Waters is. The relationship between PJ and Ruth gradually becomes reminiscent of that between Lolita and Humbert (from Kubrick's 'Lolita'). The dysfunctional family is portrayed in a funny light but the characters's (especially the women's) despair and struggle is evident such as Mom being concerned about her daughter and Yvonne who is unhappy with her sex life. Campion, with the help of the actors, creates this whole mysterious atmosphere through the characters. We are given some nice glimpses of the isolated dry Australian landscape.
The performances are terrific. Kate Winslet, even though occasionally switches back to her own British accent, acts phenomenally. She already made a brave choice by choosing such a risky role and the actress just shows how comfortable she is in the skin of her character and mesmerizes the viewer. Harvey Keitel does nothing short of a fine job but he is obviously overshadowed by Winslet. The supporting cast, especially Sophie Lee (as Ruth's desperate and sleazy sister-in-law) and Julie Hamilton (as the concerned and loving mother).
'Holy Smoke' is a well-made and brave film. Clearly it is not for everyone. There are very few movies that are both funny and thought-provoking. 'Holy Smoke' is one such captivating film.
The interesting and important themes dealt with make this movie well
First you think that it will be a simple educational movie about cult addiction and recovery - but then the plot starts to get complicated. Maybe even a bit too complicated, because the end part of the movie feels rather artificial.
The story tells about very important and even universal things: meaning of life, feelings of emptiness, relationships of leaders and their pupils, human nature, need of love. But though those themes are thought provoking, the movie itself lacks a lot as a movie. I cannot help thinking that someone could have made this into a much better movie (shouldn't be the fault of the makers though, many of them have had good artistic achievements).
The persons lack enough depth. The truly complicated nature of people is not - after all - portraited realistically enough in this movie. Because of that you never start to take the movie seriously enough despite the many dead serious themes dealt with.
Very difficult movie to rate. In purely artistic sense, the movie: acting, directing, filming etc. is worth maybe 6/10, but because of the important thought provoking subject, I give it a much better 8/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Be warned that this movie is nothing like the trailer (not a rare story,
still). The trailer banks on the promise with which the movie starts, but
this promise is completely squandered. If it hadn't left me feeling that
much was wasted (including my expectations and time) then I would score it
little higher, but it is a let-down.
I got geared up for a satisfying battle of the wills with strong sexual tension and witty comedy - uh, no. All the hopes you might have for this, entwined with the interesting topics of spiritual belief, family-love, -expectations and -narrowness, and cult deprogramming will be lost quickly. The characters RUSH into sex, and any real interesting issues are suddenly discarded. It just becomes a drawn out mess with 2 lost people clawing at each other and calling each other names. An older man becoming obsessed with a nubile young woman (for some reason she spends an awful lot of time hanging around in a bra) who taunts him with it. Where is his strength? We are supposed to believe that he has worked with 189 other vulnerable young people and his experience leads him to this pathetic breakdown of trust and decency so quickly? And what about the devotion she had for her belief? Gone. This could all be the source of a good dark film, if it was handled and explored well, but it isn't here, and this film doesn't make a good transition to it as a subject. It just left me feeling a bit lost and abused, having watched people being so rotten to one another to no good end (the wrap-up "we're OK now, and better for the experience" ending is just bogus). I got the sense that the filmmakers ran out of steam on this - that there were supposed to be many levels at work, but they just couldn't "keep it up." I saw this with two friends and we talked about it for a while afterwards, mainly because we were trying to salvage the unfulfilled promise of interesting topics opened in the beginning of the film. It left us feeling stranded, needing to talk about it in order to follow through on what the film didn't deliver. We also needed to just get the bad taste of the film out of our mouths.
I see from other viewer comments that people argue that it raises many issues - it does, but that doesn't make it a good film. It opens too many doors and then let's all the good stuff fly away. It's a shame, because the first part really seems to be the opening to a view of cult deprogramming, with Ruth's zany family as a background (that bunch of characters is wasted, which is too bad), and then it suddenly becomes about sex, desperation and nastiness, nothing clever. And the sex isn't even sexy - it's pathetic, desperate sex. Ick. Perhaps this movie is worth seeing, for the things that are brought up - but be aware that it doesn't come near to completing the journey with any of them, and that it is not as clever and funny as the trailer and the beginning would lead you to believe. Be prepared for the characters to fall apart, and to sit through a long period of people being just being mean and debased, until you just don't care about them at all anymore. All too bad - some very talented people were involved in this.
Holy Smoke has two good performances from Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. It also has some nice cinematography and some interesting visual tricks, but apart from that, the film is kind of a mixed bag. The story concerns Winslet's family trying to break her from the hold of a religious sect in India. Harvey Keitel is called in by the family to break Winslet and return her to her family. What follows is a three day odyssey that contains an odd transformation from both characters. I'm not sure how I felt after seeing the film, to tell the truth I'm still not sure what the film was saying.
I was in Karlovy Vary in June, 2000 and needed a break from Czech so I went to see Holy Smoke at a 5 p.m. showing. The Kino Cas required a minimum of 8 people to buy tickets or they would not show the movie. The crowd numbered about 12. I enjoyed Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet's roles very much. Just when you think that you've met the most dysfunctional family in your personal experiences, here is one to top them all. Kate Winslet's family is in need of a "deprogrammer" to rescue their daughter from the clutches of Eastern Transcendentalism and they call on Harvey Keitel's character to get the job done. Some may find the movie silly but I thought it touched some real difficult issues faced by many. I was lost in thought during much of the film so I revisited the Cino Cas the following afternoon to see it again. It rated a 9 from my perspective. R Morris
This movie is definitely the worst I have seen in a long time. Although an OK performance by Kate Winslet and the usual clean-up character by Harvey Keitel (which might work for a support act ...), the movie is a complete disaster. As if you prepare a pudding (the idea), then take away the tin and the whole bloody thing just falls together in itself (story, structure, performance).
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