Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke is the story of an Australian girl Ruth (Kate Winslet) that travels to India on vacation and winds up staying after joining a cult

Cults are very much in the news lately. As many people are dissatisfied with the impersonal and technological world, more and more turn to pseudo religious groups for solace. Holy Smoke is the story of an Australian girl Ruth (Kate Winslet) that travels to India on vacation and winds up staying after joining a cult. Her friend and traveling companion returns to Australia to tell Ruth’s parents the bad news. Determined to get her back Ruth’s mother goes to India to induce her to return by telling Ruth her father is dying. Once back home they hire an Exit Councilor, PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel) to make sure the cult is out of Ruth’s system. What ensues is a strange, uneven trip though the minds of these two people.

Holy Smoke is told in basically three sections. The first is Ruth becoming involved with the cult and the plans made by her family. The second, and most dramatically powerful, is the contest of wills between Ruth and PJ. In this portion of the film the dialogue truly carries the story. Words are used almost as if they were weapons designed to probe and dismember the will of the other. The last section of Holy Smoke is the most disappointing. After Ruth is nearly broken of the cult’s influence she walks out naked into the desert. PJ finds her outside and tries to comfort her. In doing so they have sex and PJ becomes hopelessly infatuated with Ruth. This infatuation is so bizarre that PJ even dresses in Ruth’s makeup and dress, losing all the strength and professionalism that he carried so well in the middle of the film. The ancillary characters come off as stereotypical Aussie buffoons. While a little of this is good for comic relief there is far to much in Holy Smoke. Ruth’s sister in law (Sophie Lee) is portrayed as a one dimensional little tramp that tries her best to seduce PJ. In one of the many non-sequitor scenes, she does manage a moment with him.

The acting should have been better considering the caliber of the cast. Keitel is perhaps one of the best character actors around. His strength and drive usually mark his performances. Here, only the second section of Holy Smoke has these qualities. The final section is an embarrassment to such an actor. Winslet performs well throughout the film although her performance is rather flat and uninspired. I miss the days when she was active in such independent films as Heavenly Creatures and Jude. She phoned this job in. The supporting cast does not live up to that title. It looks as though left overs from an Australian beer commercial where rounded up and told to improvise their parts. They do not help the story at all in any emotional manner.

Director Jane Campion usually lives up to higher standards in her films. In Angel at my Table she provides a deep, emotionally charged live of a young girl. In Portrait of a Lady she helps Nicole Kidman achieve one of the best performances of her life. Here, unfortunately, the spark is gone. During the middle of Holy Smoke I had hopes that it would return but the way Campion permits the films to disintegrate into a farce of itself is a disgrace for such a talented, experienced director.

The one saving grace is the Holy Smoke DVD itself. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is excellent. The many scenes of the Australian outback are stunning. There is a clarity that only a DVD can provide. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is extremely well mixed. The surround tracks provide a full, rich ambience to the film. The sub woofer punctuates the changing moods and adds real depth to the score. Now the score, there is another strange thing. It is very heavy on Neil Diamond tunes. There is no apparent reason they are just in there.

Holy Smoke is not a movie that lives up to the promise. I hope Campion gets back to doing what she does best, directing, and she leaves experimentation like this for film school students.

Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com

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