Australian director Jane Campion hit pay dirt in 1993 with the gothic "The Piano," which brought her an Academy Award for her script. From there, however, it's been a downhill ride, first with the overproduced and stilted adaptation of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" and now with "Holy Smoke!", an intriguing premise that veers wildly from sexual power play to spiritual meditation to bad melodrama.
In tandem with her younger sister Anna, Campion has written a script that basically examines a May-December relationship from the female perspective. They begin with an intriguing premise: A young Australian woman named Ruth (the always luminous Kate Winslet) travels to India and falls under the sway of a holy man. Her concerned traveling companion returns home and alerts the woman's family.
In turn, her parents concoct a plan to lure her back to their middle-class suburb where she can be "saved." Spending a small fortune, the parents hire PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel in a role written expressly for him), a deprogrammer with a stellar track record. In his cowboy outfit, dyed dark hair and mustache, Waters cuts a figure of both awe and folly. He allows his vanity to get the best of him by agreeing to the "exit" without the support of his backup.
Despite the presence of other characters, many of whom border on caricature, "Holy Smoke!" boils down to a two-hander. It is in their scenes that the Campion sisters set out to debunk and demystify the idea of the older man with the younger woman. Given that so much ink has been spilled about unlikely screen pairings, this seems a perfect theme, ripe for exploration. Even the antagonistic setup of cult follower and deprogrammer is fraught with possibilities.
Alone in a shack in the Outback near the heart of the continent, the pair literally wages a battle of the sexes. Both actors work hard to overcome the trite dialogue and mine the intention of the piece. For this kind of study of the sexual dynamic between older man and younger woman, though, Keitel and Winslet don't generate much heat. It also doesn't help that Winslet appears as robust as she does while Keitel sometimes seems almost frail in comparison.
Campion also imposes what can be viewed as humiliating circumstances on the individuals: In one scene, Winslet runs around in the nude, urinates on herself, then seduces Keitel. He, in turn, is made to wear a red dress and lipstick in some sort of psychological transference that is painful to watch.
The film's ending feels tacked on and while it might provide definitive answers about the two leads, one can't help but wish that the Campions had trusted the audience more by leaving it more ambiguous.
Because of the structure of the piece, several fine supporting players, all female, are given moments that make one wish they had more to do: Julie Hamilton as Winslet's mother, Sophie Lee as Winslet's slightly trampy sister-in-law and Pam Grier as Keitel's partner. The film also benefits from the exquisite cinematography of Dion Beebe and Angelo Badalamenti's appropriately haunting score. It's a shame to watch good work done in by a poor script.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and language.
Kate Winslet: Ruth Barron
Harvey Keitel: PJ Waters
Pam Grier: Carol
Sophie Lee: Yvonne Barron
Julie Hamilton: Miriam Barron
A Miramax presentation. Director Jane Campion. Screenplay Jane Campion and Anna Campion. Producer Jan Chapman. Director of Photography Dion Beebe. Editor Veronika Jenet. Production Designer Janet Patterson. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.