Ten years and four features after the film that put her on the map, Jane Campion returns to the freewheeling style and idiosyncratic humor of “Sweetie” in perhaps her most challenging work to date, “Holy Smoke.” Original in every sense, this often difficult film about family, relationships, sexual politics, spiritual questing, faith and obsession further explores the director’s abiding fascinations in excitingly unconventional terms. Mainstream audiences may be unwilling to surrender to the pull of a unique journey that strips away its characters’ masks and refuses easy solutions, and many men especially will find it too confronting. But others will embrace its thematic and stylistic complexity as qualities all too rare in contemporary cinema.
Written by the director with her sister Anna Campion, the story concerns a young Australian woman who falls under the spell of a guru and is drawn into an Indian cult, prompting her family to engage a crack American “exit counselor” at great expense to bring her back to Earth. But when the tables are turned, making sex the central issue, the real subject becomes gender relationships, in particular the dynamic of a younger woman with an older man, as the cult buster himself undergoes a radical deprogramming of his beliefs and standards.
A ravishing title sequence swiftly conveys the overwhelming physical presence and heady spiritual allure of India, where vacationing Ruth (Kate Winslet) becomes convinced she has found something to believe in. Action then shifts abruptly and amusingly to the neat lawns and squat suburban houses of Sans Souci, Sydney. Here, Ruth’s family learns she has torn up her return ticket and pledged her devotion to guru Baba. Her mother (Julie Hamilton) flies to Delhi, but Ruth — now known as Nazni — refuses to leave despite being told her father (Tim Robertson) is dying.
More than in any Campion film since “Sweetie,” eccentric humor plays a vital part here in countering the intensity of Ruth’s experience, most notably in scenes with her drolly unsophisticated family. And as in “Sweetie,” the director maintains an edge to the material with constant shifts in tone, moving from something approaching comedy into darker areas. One such shift occurs in a striking sequence in which Ruth’s mother is overcome by panic before an audience with Baba. Her crazed flight through the streets pursued by beggars induces a severe asthma attack that persuades Ruth to accompany her home.
Back in Australia, Ruth is taken to visit her father in the outback, where he supposedly is recovering from a stroke. But realization of her family’s deceit triggers another change in tone as she is cornered like an animal and comes face to face with cult exit counselor PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel). This beautifully orchestrated transition introduces the tension that remains in play throughout their sustained face-off.
Removing Ruth to a remote halfway house, PJ commences his program of isolating the hostile woman, taking away her sari and other props, challenging the certainty that Baba holds the answers for her, aggravating her and generally wearing her down. But as she begins to weaken, the question of sex takes precedence over religion. After PJ succumbs to the lure of her young flesh, Ruth is given a means of manipulating him. She begins challenging him about his male vanity and veiled misogyny, eventually making him examine his attitudes by transforming him with makeup and a dress into an unattractive middle-aged woman.
With the change in focus, the film gets onto shaky, less coherent ground, and the about-face in power seems forced. But the principal problem stems from the way PJ is presented as a solid, experienced, intelligent professional. As his sexual attraction becomes more obsessive and as Ruth’s youth and strength strip him bare, his descent into irresponsible, and then increasingly unstable, pathetic behavior makes the character’s path a difficult one to believe or follow, this despite a powerfully raw performance from Keitel.
But ultimately, notwithstanding this semi-derailment, there’s something persuasive about being in the hands of such an uncompromising filmmaker who refuses to take a predictable course or make things easy by over-explaining. In the final act, Campion satisfyingly pulls the film back on track, revealing the purpose of the script’s odd tangents as a means for PJ to redeem himself and for Ruth to discover compassion and overcome the fear of her own harshness and inability to love.
Compassion is not only the destination of Ruth’s journey but one of the key qualities distinguishing Campion’s handle on her material. As in “Sweetie,” the observation here of the more gauche side of Australian suburbanites is spot-on and bitingly funny, without the overstatedness of films like “Muriel’s Wedding” or “Strictly Ballroom.” But there’s no superiority or ridicule involved, which saves the family members — especially Ruth’s confused, well-meaning mother — from becoming mere caricatures. Likewise the view of Eastern religions never demonizes or condescends and is clearly that of someone with her own interest in the spiritual search.
For her first major role since “Titanic” — discounting the not widely seen “Hideous Kinky” — Winslet deserves credit for avoiding easy choices in favor of this complex character, who takes the actress far beyond anything she has done onscreen before. Showing the kind of courage few young thesps would be capable of and an extraordinary range that sees her swing from crushed vulnerability to abrasiveness and brutality, from animal cunning to unhinged desperation, she holds nothing back. And the British actress delivers it all with a flawless Australian accent.
Strong support comes from Hamilton and from Sophie Lee, who has several hilarious scenes as Ruth’s trashy sister-in-law. In the small role of PJ’s girlfriend and professional backup, which one suspects may originally have been more substantial, Pam Grier is somewhat wasted. “Sweetie” star Genevieve Lemon appears briefly as one of Ruth’s fellow devotees in India.
Working without regular d.p. Stuart Dryburgh for the first time since “Sweetie,” Campion has enlisted talented Australian lenser Dion Beebe (“Crush,” “Praise”), and the results are perhaps even more arresting visually than the director’s previous work. The use of color is dazzling, from the dreamy pastels and vibrant hues of India to the hard edges of Sydney suburbia to the burnt, red earth and brilliant blue skies of the outback landscape around the halfway house.
Beebe’s camera tirelessly seeks out unusual details, and the film is peppered with surprising visual inventions, some of them narrative expedients and others just clever stylistic touches. These include Ruth’s enlightenment in India, shot like a Bollywood fantasy sequence, her appearance before PJ as a Hindu goddess and an amusing recap of her past relationships. Technical contributions all are extremely accomplished, including Janet Patterson’s richly detailed sets and vibrant costumes, Veronika Jenet’s pacey editing, which gives the film a lively, nervous rhythm, and Angelo Badalamenti’s textured score, complemented by witty use of songs.