Holy Smoke

Hurrah, another Jane Campion film. I can’t say I was much of a fan of The Piano, so I wasn’t much looking forward to this, the next available film featuring Kate Winslet (Hideous Kinky and Faeries are as yet out of my reach).

Winslet plays Ruth, a young Australian girl (with a distinctly English accent) who has travelled to India to find herself. As well as finding that, she discovers and becomes willingly entangled in a mass marriage/suicide cult, and her understandably concerned family would rather she just came home. After Ruth’s mother (Julie Hamilton) manages to persuade her daughter to come back to Sydney with her, utilising a fake illness for her father and a very real asthma attack for her mother, the family bring in P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a professional ‘exit counsellor,’ an expert at convincing people to give up their new found cultish beliefs and return to their previous lives.

The central plot sounded interesting, but rather annoyingly once Ruth and Waters head out to a secluded halfway house for the three day brain-dewashing, most of the religious aspects are dropped, in favour of focusing on the relationship forming between the two leads. This is a shame, as Ruth’s family, comprised on a ragtag bunch of idiots and fools, offers the most entertainment in a film that can’t decide if it’s a comedy or drama. There are scenes involving Ruth’s sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee) running flatout into an unseen pole, but later far more potentially comedic scenes are played entirely laugh free. You want an example? Keitel wearing a short dress, smeared lipstick and one boot raised almost no smiles at all, yet really could have been hilarious. Alas, what is left is directionless and meandering.

For those of you who’ve seen The Piano, or pretty much any adult-rated Harvey Keitel film, it will come as no surprise that this film is rife with sex, nudity and scenes of an adult nature. What is surprising though is how little of the nudity is Keitel’s, with this being another film in which Winslet seems more than happy to disrobe at every opportunity, though unlike Titanic and Jude, this time there’s added urination, whilst standing, on her own feet. Elsewhere, there’s an act of fellatio disguised as therapy, and lines of dialogue like “Do you like my personality, or do you like my breasts best?” and “You can’t stop me from having sexual thoughts about you.”

It becomes clear fairly early on that it’s Ruth’s family that needs the psychological help more than Ruth herself, specifically Yvonne, who writes herself letters from Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and leaves them out for her husband to find. There’s also Ruth’s other brother, Tim (Paul Goddard, one of the lesser agents from The Matrix), who we are told is gay, yet this isn’t enough to hammer home the point, he has to be seen wearing skintight black string vests, just to make sure we understand. Ruth’s Mum gets some of the better moments, especially during her Indian jaunt, where her refusal to drink anything unless it’s from a bottle, and her disgust at the toilet hole her daughter uses put me in mind of how my own mother would react under similar circumstances.

Keitel has a great screen presence, as usual, and his mustachioed cult exiter, a kind of Mr. Wolf of interventions, is captivating. When Ruth and her friends visit a night club he tags along, and the intensity of his stare as Ruth and another girl dance very closely to one another is a sight to behold. Look out for an underused Pam Grier as Waters’ L.A.-based assistant.

There was one nice moment of cinematography that I liked. Ruth, outside rearranging rocks whilst Waters is inside, can be seen through the one transparent window pane in a multi-coloured window, as the camera slowly zooms in on her. It was a good, artistic shot, but wasn’t enough to make the film worthwhile.

Choose life 4/10

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