Sometimes there’s real greatness in a movie that also has Mac Truck-sized flaws, and you end up wondering if the glories could exist without the problems. In the case of Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, one of my favorite movies of last year, I think the answer is pretty clear: They could. Improve this film’s annoyingly uneven script and it would be a constant astonishment. As is, it’s merely–merely!–sure proof that Campion remains one of the cinema’s most dazzling visual stylists.
There’s always been a strong literary component to Campion’s work, from her early lapidarian shorts through the novelistic moods, conceits and (sometimes) sources of An Angel at My Table, Sweetie, The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. She has also chosen wisely in the screenwriters who wrote or collaborated with her on the scripts of these films. A lapse in such judgment may be where the salient problems of Holy Smoke begin. It was co-scripted by Campion and her sister Anna, who’s previously known for a singularly awful feature titled Loaded of a few years back.
The holes in the Campions’ new creation, however, belong to its latter sections; at first, we’re greeted with a blast of Neil Diamond and a fictional premise that seems ideally suited to Jane’s gifts. As Diamond’s “Holly Holy” booms magnificently on the soundtrack–hope that the theater where you see it has the volume cranked to 11–several young Westerners, including Ruth (Kate Winslet), are seen swaying to the movements of a rickety bus negotiating the streets of New Delhi. This is the India of mystical beguilements, woozy with incense and credulity, and obviously fun. Pretty soon, the kids are rocking out on a rooftop as the sun sets, giddy with sensual self-abandonment and giving new meaning to the term “Diamond sutra.”
Although it’s basically a scene-setting backdrop to the opening credits, this passage is also the movie’s most purely exultant moment, and, as such, deserves to be seen as crucial to Campion’s creation. Her films often seem at war with intellectual over-determination, and communicate their most essential meanings through pure form, or the elements of form that most easily supersede the mechanics of narrative: specific weaves of music and light, compositional angles and editing rhythms. Seeing is not believing, her films suggest, but quite the opposite. It is feeling, overthrowing the tyranny of habitual, social rationality for the wisdom–the enlightenment–of the senses.
Sure, Western kids in saris dancing to Neil Diamond on a Delhi rooftop is a jeans commercial’s idea of transcendence. Yet it is an idea, and the way Campion does it here, full of breathless bravado and deft choreographic precision, suggests that it is not an entirely unworthy place to start. Yet, in terms of Holy Smoke, it is also a premature stopping point. No sooner has Ruth settled into a mystical groove in India than one of her gal pals gets the jitters, skips back to Sydney and warns Ruth’s parents that she’s been snared by a manipulative guru. Their panicked response, not surprisingly, involves an elaborate effort to rescue her from something she doesn’t want to be rescued from. So long, pop paradise.
In a way, the premise of Holy Smoke reverses the trajectory of The Piano, in which the heroine leaves behind straitlaced European ways and discovers a deeper sense of self in a very foreign environment. Here, the heroine is dragged back from her voyage of discovery almost as soon as it’s begun, returning from exotic adventure to familiar absurdity. The film is Campion’s first excursion into comedy since Sweetie, and her satiric barbs are sharp yet precise. Thankfully avoiding the broad-stroke kitschiness that Muriel’s Wedding and scads of other films made an overdone Aussie trademark, Holy Smoke conjures up a suburban world–it’s called “Sans Souci,” happily enough–whose denizens are realistic enough to know that Ruth’s spiritual detour demands serious action.
Her dowdy, concerned mom (Julie Hamilton) goes to India, where, recoiling predictably from the flies and poverty, she tells Ruth that her dad has suffered a stroke and may not make it. Ruth demurs, but eventually Mom’s benign lie coaxes her back to Australia. There, besides her not-at-all suffering dad (Tim Robertson), she’s met with a team of would-be psychological rescuers that includes her empty-headed surfer brother Robbie (Dan Wyllie) and his hot-to-trot wife Yvonne (Sophie Lee), as well as their gay brother Tim (Paul Goddard) and his boyfriend Yani (George Mangos). And leading the team is an import from abroad, P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), supposedly America’s most successful cult deprogrammer, or as it’s called here, “exit counselor.”
Entering the film to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Said,” suavely outfitted in jeans, shades and shiny cowboy boots, P.J. is American macho expertise personified, ready to rock and fully assured that he’s a match for any guru. He tells his helpers his program requires three days, each one devoted to a different step in breaking down the subject’s defenses. But when he first glimpses Ruth, he opines that maybe this one may only take 12 hours. Little does he know.
Much of Holy Smoke‘s appeal, from the time P.J. and Ruth are left to their duel of wills, alone on a remote Outback ranch, owes to its stars. Campion has always been extraordinarily good with actors, and here she gets from Winslet a fiery yet controlled and charismatic performance that’s as assured as anything you can see in a current movie. Keitel, capable as ever, is a fine sparring partner for her, aggressive yet strategically flexible and, on the subject of his dyed hair and advancing age, inescapably vulnerable. At first, they go at it like worthy opponents, searching out each other’s weak spots and looking to make contact.
Trouble is, the Campions’ script really doesn’t know where to take its two leads once they’ve fully engaged and, of course, gone to bed. The faulty, uninspired third act is a common problem in movies today, even some very good ones; the critics who voted for Being John Malkovich as the year’s best film (it shared the National Society of Film Critics honors with Topsy-Turvy) for example, presumably did so by overlooking that its last 15 minutes devolve into glib plot twists, and that most clichéd dramatic cop-out of all, the chase scene. But here the weakness suggests something more than a simple failure of invention (though it’s that too): It shows Campion retreating ill-advisedly from her own best instincts and surest insights.
Her previous movies have insisted on the integrity of women’s subjective experience. So why not at least entertain the notion that in India Ruth had a spiritual experience worth defending? Of course, there are sound reasons why many Western movies resist speaking of spirituality and especially the inner traditions of other cultures. Yet in foreclosing this avenue of dramatic exploration, Campion starts off by, in effect, siding with Ruth’s family and all the narrow Western rationalistic prejudices they represent. And that means denying her heroine a self-determined inner life that, at least in part, can stand against all the definitions imposed on her from without.
Given such choices, the movie has no tenable destination other than the patterns (including predictable reversals) of standard romantic comedy, and even there it falters; when Ruth keeps harping on P.J.’s age, the tale becomes not only trite but tedious. Yet despite all this, it ends up coming off as a surprisingly forceful and compelling artistic vision, largely because of Campion’s masterful deployment of the film’s formal elements.
For all her literary models and psychological interests, Campion has always been primarily a visual storyteller; each of her features offers an extremely distinct look that self-evidently conveys its own set of meanings. Holy Smoke, a bright pipe dream of a movie, is full of pastels and desert ochres, the warm, sculpting light of late afternoon and the prismatic perspectives of a camera that sometimes seems to have its own mind (Dion Beebe’s photography is exemplary). In other filmmakers, such sterling images would be merely, if very effectively, decorative. In Campion, they transmute rather than illustrate. If you want to know what happened to Ruth’s inner life, they hint, don’t look to the film’s two-dimensional dialogue. Look up on the screen, where the visual landscape does indeed summon up the luminescence of imagination and belief.
Perhaps next time, Campion’s intelligence will lead her to a screenwriter who can more expertly turn a rich premise into a fully fleshed drama. Still, Holy Smoke will remain among her most fascinating and seductive films, if only because its flaws allow us a strangely clear view of her vast and unusual gifts.