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An 18-year-old Sydneysider (from Sans Souci), Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), goes to India on holiday with a friend and stays on after becoming entranced by a guru at his ashram. Her horrified family (mother, mainly) employ America's top cult-exiter P.J. Walters (Harvey Keitel) to de-program her, and she is tricked into returning to Australia then carted off to a desert hut where P.J. plans to do his psycho-work in three days. Kate is tricked into returning home and coerced into a three-day encounter session with PJ in a run-down shack on a remove emu farm. The final outcome of their battle of wits and wills suggests there is possibly more to a Sans Souci upbringing than you might at first suppose.

"The opening sequences alone can leave no-one in any doubt that Jane Campion has a great cinematic talent. Her use of framing, colour, movement, music/sound, camera and editing as tools to create mood, tone and intellectual involvement are beyond question. And she will never allow predictability to seep into her work. Later in the film, her inventiveness and her defiance of predictability lead her into high risk areas – cinematic pyrotechnics that sometimes blaze with glory, sometimes fizzle with the sorry sound of a misfire. One such case is the final leg of PJ's emotional journey, in which Harvey Keitel is required to change the personality of his character so intrinsically and so rapidly as to be forced and clunky, not to mention hard to believe. Another soft spot in the script is the absence of a scene showing us Ruth's reluctant acceptance of the contract to be de-programmed. We are merely told about this, and in the context of her antagonism to it in the first place, we need to see it in all its subtlety, from her words to her body language. This is where the film's weakness is found: the writing. (Although it does offer sparkling lines and witty observation.) Cinematically remarkable, Holy Smoke seems to have by-passed a tough-as-bootnails script editor who may have alerted Campion to the flaws - especially as they are the product of her strengths: iconoclastic filmmaking. Take no prisoners. Bravura juxtaposing, scenes full of brio - and iconic images, at which Campion (and her DoPs) excels. But the emotional journey we are asked to take is muddled, the characters are either inaccessibly forced or not really likeable, and the dramatic tension of the central relationship is not fully realised, with the often overplayed characters and over-cranked plot. The film begins (after the brilliant opening credits) with a cartoonish tone, in a setting reminiscent of Sweetie in its savage satire of a family that's like torn jeans: hanging together by threads. But this is an error of judgement: this film needs to set us up with the sort of reality and naturalism the opening scenes in Delhi provide. The mood and tone changes a couple of times (which I don't mind - life does that too) but there are side-bar issues and characters that just don't work. All the same, I urge you to see Holy Smoke and debate it: it is unique, and in showbiz that is already something special."
Andrew L. Urban

"Cinematically splendid, Jane Campion's Holy Smoke is often breathtaking, occasionally heavy handed and sadly disappointing by its meandering script that plunges into melodrama. Campion has film flair; she elevates her craft into an art; the visuals, the creativity, the colour and textures all zing. The opening sequences in India dazzle with creative passion – we are there, overwhelmed by the local smells and sounds, the tinkling bells, the gawdy colours that rejoice in a richly exotic culture. But these magical moments are all too short and as the story elements are revealed, it occurs to me that Holy Smoke is trying to be too many things. Put together the kitsch from Steph Elliott's Welcome to Woop Woop, the larger than life of Baz Luhrman's Strictly Ballroom with the mocking caricatures from The Castle. Swish them all about with a dollop of Hideous Kinky and the quest for a journey of the soul. . . Holy Cocktail indeed! Campion juxtaposes her central theme of the search for the meaning of life with a periphery of over-the-top Australian caricatures. No problem with the idea, just a problem with the execution, which is devoid of subtleties and showcases characters which we don't quite warm to, as she makes fun of them. Playing it straight rather than for laughs would be far more effective. Kate Winslet glows with an excellent performance and Harvey Keitel always does seedy well. The film's low point comes in the middle of the desert, Keitel clad in a red frock with matching lippie and one boot yanked over hairy legs, chasing Winslet who is strapped into shoes made of books. Campion takes a big risk and it doesn't work; the film disintegrates into melodramatic madness. Holy Smoke revels in rebellion – of the mind, the body and of convention itself. The victim becomes the predator, the predator the victim. Life's paradoxes and contradictions are showcased – cynics in bed with believers, fanatics hand in hand with agnostics. But watch for Animal Logic's fabulous visual effects – the casually tossed brilliance of the opening credits, the showy, glorious golden mirage sequence, all the while wallowing in the melancholy of the music's minor theme. Intriguing, complex and artistically vibrant, Holy Smoke is as beguiling as it's title, travelling in a myriad directions with the breeze - like smoke."
Louise Keller

"Frame by frame, from its opening in dusty, sweaty Indian bazaars to stark, red-dirt empty outback via neatly-mown Sans Souci, ex-art students Jane (and co-scriptwriter sister) Anna Campion have made a radiantly beautiful film (with help from director of photography, Dion Beebe, and production designer, Janet Patterson). And with a cast that includes Genevieve Lemon, Kerry Walker, Julie Hamilton and Sophie Lee, it is slyly funny yet empathetic in its portrayal of Ruth's awful family; and of the pretensions that lurk in the western-Indian experience and in psychobabble. In essence Ruth is young, brave and intelligent and wants to make her own mistakes. But her family is too ignorant and ordinary and PJ is too arrogant and macho to allow it. But, as PJ is played by everyone's favourite deconstructed man and he is in Jane Campion's favourite terrain, it is only a matter of time before the sexual and power tables are turned. Campion's continuing exploration of female sexuality and the power battle between men and women (Sweetie, The Piano, Portrait of a Lady) is challenging and captivating. Whether or not you are repelled or drawn in by this gorgeous and unsesttling movie could depend on your attitude to those topics. Campion has probably been over-ambitious – everything is thrown in and given a stir: also under the microscope is the aridity of human relations, particularly the nuclear family, Australian-style – but in this era of beancounters masquerading as Hollywood moguls and moviemaking by numbers, over-ambition is surely the only way to go. Holy Smoke is remarkable and destined to be one of those revisited classics that are more rewarding with each viewing."
Diana Simmonds

"Views differ among the hundreds who flocked to see the world premiere of Australia-based director Jane Campion's Holy Smoke. Those who liked the tale of religious redemption and psychological and emotional warfare will tell you it's a melange of stunning visuals and confronting personal truths. Others will say it's just a mess. Certainly, from the opening titles, as two teenage female Australian backpackers dip their nail-polished toes into Indian spirituality, the scenes are so evocative, you can almost smell them. And the moment when Ruth, played by Kate Winslet, is touched physically and cosmically by a guru is so vivid, you almost believe it. But not quite. Suddenly we're transported to suburban Sydney and brought down to earth with a thud as resounding as a road train smacking into a kangaroo. This is the Australia of Woop Woop, Muriel and The Castle. Every cultural clichι is employed and Sophie Lee is drafted in to give the final touch of ugboot realism to the picture. When US `cult-exiter' P.J. Walters, played by Harvey Keitel, is drafted in to "de-program" Ruth, the movie is a battle of wills between Ruth and P.J., and, dare I say it, the director and the audience. For while Winslet gives a sparkling performance which almost saves the movie, Keitel's is mannered and stilted, veering from the ludicrous to the laconic, rarely touching any of the points in between. On the positive side, this tortuous journey of two souls in search of a meaning takes us down some beautifully shot and technically clever roads, but that doesn't disguise the impression that the movie needs a guru more than the characters do. And it leaves us too asking the big question: why are we here?"
Jimmy Thompson

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* Miramax (US) put up the money, but producer, writers, director and crew are largely Australian.

CAST: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton, Sophie Lee, Paul Goddard, Kerry Walker, Tim Rogers, Daniel Wyllie, Austen Tashus, Pam Grier,

PRODUCER: Jan Chapman

DIRECTOR: Jane Campion

SCRIPT: Jane Campion, Anna Campion (based on the book by Jane and Anna Campion)


EDITOR: Veronika Jenet


MUSIC: Angelo Badalamenti


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 1999

VIDEO RELEASE: June 6, 2000

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Home Entertainment

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