Up until a couple of days before its (failed) Academy-qualifying run in December, the latest film from idiosyncratic New Zealand-born director Jane Campion bore the more exclamatory moniker Holy Smoke!--an interjection that will serve as many people's immediate reaction to the picture. It certainly was mine--in a good way. The basic plot synopsis doesn't clue one in to the twisted path this unique film takes. A young Australian named Ruth (Kate Winslet) returns home from a trip to India a changed woman, having fallen under the spell of a spiritual guru. Deeply concerned, her family enlists the services of American P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a cult deprogrammer with an impeccable success record. P.J.'s track record doesn't stand a chance, however, when Ruth turns out to be as headstrong as he is.
Thus the stage is set for a traditional role reversal; as Ruth's devotion to her guru fades away, P.J. finds himself falling under the influence of a different cult--Ruth's formidable sexual allure--and he is helpless to resist. But this being a Campion film, the story hardly unfolds in a traditional manner, and neither in the most serious. Walking into the auditorium, one would not expect to see Keitel wearing a dress and full makeup for the last 20 or so minutes. Then there are the surreal visual touches to rival the talking lima beans in Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, such as the comical parade of Ruth's past lovers, all of whom have twinkling eyes and teeth. It goes without saying that these flights of fancy lends the film a bizarre fascination.
Which, I believe, is the point. Holy Smoke is all about the strange spells one inexplicably gets cast under, so it's only fitting that the film itself craft one of its own. But the audacity of Campion (and her writing partner and sister, Anna) ultimately plays a smaller role in the film's success than a more concrete quality: the performances. It's a testament to Keitel's work that P.J.'s emotional descent remains believable while in drag. More impressive, though, is Winslet, who once again gets to bare another aspect of her being (in every sense) as Ruth. It's refreshing to see Winslet follow Titanic's phenomenal commercial success by returning to the edgy roles in smaller films that earned her recognition in the first place. As her terrific turn in Holy Smoke displays, the work proves more admirable and rewarding than anything in a big mainstream Hollywood picture.
Holy Smoke will undoubtedly leave most audiences exclaiming its title in a derisive manner; when I saw it, many people in the audience giggled at more than a few of Campion's weird flourishes. But if one is willing to go along with the decidedly strange path she and her able cast leads, Holy Smoke is a refreshingly bold and distinctive entertainment that makes one laugh and think--often at the same time.
RATING: *** 1/2 (Out of *****)
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