Film and TV

Running Hot and Cult

The heroine of Jane Campion's Holy Smoke is a bold and impressionable Australian girl named Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), who flees her middle-class suburb with friends for a spiritual adventure in exotic India. Inevitably, she is thunderstruck by a saucer-eyed guru named Baba, who quickly reveals the source of absolute love and the true nature of being. Or so Ruth thinks. Not only that, he appears to his new acolyte cloaked in the kind of trippy rainbow corona most moviegoers haven't seen since certain cinematographers of the late '60s tried to express the psychedelic experience as a Kodak moment.

Back on earth, Ruth's dogged, asthmatic mother (Julie Hamilton) is predictably frightened and appalled by what's befallen her daughter. Poor Mum jets off to teeming Delhi and drags her offspring home on the strength of a lie about Ruth's father (Tim Robertson) having suffered a stroke. Actually, Dad's trying to save strokes: When Ruth next sees him, he's blithely playing golf.

Lame ruse, good setup. Before we know it, Campion (who wrote the screenplay with her sister Anna) transforms Holy Smoke from a lightweight satire about the gulf between youthful indiscretion and parental befuddlement into something much more substantial -- a vivid satire of the war between men and women and an examination of the varieties of religious experience, tinged with feminist fervor. The course the story takes is every bit as unexpected as that of Campion's heralded 1993 meditation on erotic passion, The Piano. It would be edifying, one day, to view the two films as companion pieces.

Here, Ruth's family tries to head off more trouble by enlisting the services, for a cool $10,000, of "the number-one exit counselor in America," P.J. Waters. Translation: They want to deprogram their kid, and fast. As it happens, Harvey Keitel's P.J. is a cocky hipster who wears black cowboy boots, carefully pressed jeans and aviator shades. He oozes old-school machismo and sports a smug little mustache. P.J. has freed 189 previous victims from the bondage of cults, he brags, "with only a 3 percent recidivist rate." What new challenge could possibly lie in case number 190?

Just wait. Off they go, the young neo-Hindu, now more pissed off than blissed out, and the hardened control freak, to a godforsaken farm shack in the outback. There, P.J. Waters is convinced, he will apply his time-tested, three-day deprogramming process, and young Ruth will shortly be well on her way to recovery. What he doesn't count on -- what none of us counts on, unless we know the kind of dramatic boomerangs Jane Campion likes to throw in her movies -- is that the voluptuous, strong-willed young Ruth is no pushover for anyone, least of all a swaggering Yank manipulator like P.J. This, after all, is a guy who has the gall to say things like "I don't hate women; I love ladies." He can quote Socrates and conjure up tough love in his efforts to break down Ruth's defenses, but she senses vulnerabilities in him, too. Does he envy her newly minted faith? Has this middle-aged burnout got an identity problem?

Once Ruth and P.J. start to go one-on-one, these two extraordinary actors seem extraordinarily energized by the rich veins of argument and the lively confrontations -- carnal as well as spiritual -- that Campion has provided them. When P.J.'s power begins giving way to Ruth's, the characters profoundly change one another in ways they could scarcely have imagined. In contrast to the mere rush of feeling she got in India, Ruth starts to glimpse real liberation. Long addicted to domination, P.J. learns something about love.

Both actors have come this way before, more or less. After escaping a certain overrated shipwreck a few years back, Winslet has taken good care of her career; one of her best moves was Hideous Kinky, in which she played a young mother searching for religious ecstasy in Morocco. Holy Smoke is a more focused film, but the similarities are striking. Keitel, of course, was the mysterious Maori neighbor who struck an odd bargain in The Piano, so he understands the Campion style. They make for ideal antagonists here, and by the time their war is done -- go ahead, you pick a winner -- the director has the good sense to portray them as weary comrades in arms who've learned a few things.

On the fringes of the film, Campion provides a diverting array of minor characters -- notably, the foolish but well-meaning parents and Ruth's ditzy sister-in-law, Yvonne (Sophie Lee), who's as drawn to P.J.'s oily charisma as Ruth is repelled. The others, a clownish collection of siblings and hangers-on, furnish a suitably comic backdrop for the rather serious goings-on between P.J. and Ruth.

This quirky, heartfelt study of spiritual awakening amid the clamor and untidiness of everyday life works so well, it should probably be seen in ashrams as well as movie theaters, and by stockbrokers as well as seekers. In fusing the earthly and the divine, it ably reveals the human animal.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo