Keitel Gives Winslet Therapy Down Under
Kate Winslet stark naked is probably the only memory you will take from watching "Holy Smoke", maybe Harvey Keitel in a dress, but as for the rest of it you will forget it. And you will forget "Holy Smoke" because quite simply it is a mess, shifting tone, inconsistent characters and no really pay off make it not terrible but disappointing. And it is a shame as not only does it feature 2 very good actors and has the talents of Jane Campion as director but "Holy Smoke" actually starts quite well and sets up an interesting premise of what happens when 2 people end up in an isolated location to do battle over beliefs. But the pay off isn't there and sadly "Holy Smoke" almost ends up not knowing what it is about.
Whilst touring India young Australian Ruth (Kate Winslet - Titanic) becomes involved in a religious cult and when her parents find out they become concerned for her well being, so concerned they hire American PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel - Rising Sun) to help them deprogram her having tricked her into returning home. With his 3 step program Ruth and PJ retreat to a remote hide away, just the two of them, where he gets to work trying to show her all that is wrong with what she has been taught but the power between them changes as he falls for her and her sexual charms.
To be blunt the problems for "Holy Smoke" start showing themselves very quickly, the opening montage which sees Ruth fall in for this cult like religion whilst visiting India is good but the minute we then shift to her family in Australia learning of what she is up to it takes a huge shift in tone. We go from this sense of spiritualism to quirky Australian comedy with Australian caricatures rather than characters, obviously thrown in to make us laugh but feeling very out of place. This shift in tone is one of the big issues which dominate "Holy Smoke" as we then get them hiring an American specialist in dealing with people who have become brainwashed by cults and again he is a caricature rather than a character, ultra cool which doesn't fit in at all with everything else which has happened.
Now the shift in tone wouldn't be terrible if the story managed to hold up but that doesn't either. After Ruth's mum tricks her in to returning home we basically get to the main part where Ruth and the specialist PJ Waters spend 3 days in isolation, in the middle of nowhere where he basically takes her unwillingly through 3 steps, basically undoing everything which she learned in the Indian cult. Now this should be fascinating, a battle of wills as beliefs, religion and personality come to the fore as Ruth obstinately refuses to comply. Except that's not what happens, instead Ruth and PJ end up in a sexual relationship brought on by on the 2nd night Ruth seemingly having a break down and parading around naked. It is a surprising scene and not just because it features Kate Winslet totally naked but it also feels very wrong.
This shifts the story as PJ becomes obsessed with Ruth to the point she now dominates him and you think to yourself this is a clever battle of wills where she has turned the tables on him. But to put it simply it isn't and it isn't even an examination how isolation can lead to sexual tension. Instead it basically feels very daft with elements almost seemingly thrown in to shock rather than to add to the story. And again it is the very mixed bag of tone which causes this issue because we don't know whether this is meant to be serious or darkly funny and quirky.
Part of this problem does come from the fact that with the exception of Kate Winslet as Ruth everyone else is playing caricatures. Ruth's family and friends are the sort of quirky Australian characters which you have seen in other Australian comedies, think "Muriel's Wedding" and you will have an idea. And whilst Harvey Keitel plays an American he is almost a walking cliche, a cheesy mixed bag of reasoning who in the blink of an eye shifts from being the dominator to the dominated, willing to demean himself as he falls for Ruth's body. As such it is Kate Winslet who ends up putting in the best performance and to be honest it is by no means Winslet at her best, but at least she gets across the complexity of her character.
What this all boils down to is that "Holy Smoke" could have been a fascinating psychological drama which explored not only the issues of beliefs and cults but also the tension brought on from two people spending time in isolation together. But with its constantly shifting tone and quirky characters it ends up very confused and unsure whether it wants to be funny or serious.