By Mike Carron
From Academy Award-winning writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano) comes a visually lush film that offers amazing cinematography and little else.
Holy Smoke begins in India and tells the story of visiting Australian Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) and her infatuation with spiritual guru Chidaatma Baba. Barron falls in love with Baba and his teachings, burning her return plane ticket to show her sincere desire to marry Baba. Worried for her wellfare, Barron’s mother travels to India to trick Barron into coming home, but fails. Eventually, her mother has a real panic attack and Barron is forced to accompany her home to Australia. The family then hires cult expert P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram Barron.
At this point, the film loses itself to a weak script and poor acting. Normally, Keitel can add depth to any character he plays, but in Holy Smoke his presence and talent is almost non-existent–as if he would rather do anything else.
As the film develops, Keitel becomes incredibly frustrating. As his character Waters loses his control of the situation, his desire for Barron supposedly grows, but you can’t tell from Keitel’s acting. Viewers wait for Waters to finally tell Barron "he can’t help it" if he has sexual feelings towards her. In one scene which displays Keitel’s unusually bad acting, Barron grinds and kisses one of her female friends as Waters watches. Despite his supposed desire for her, Waters appears disinterested.
Winslet also had trouble figuring out her character. As Barron breaks down after realizing that her family initially tricked her, Winslet goes through so many emotional changes, it’s hard to figure her character out. Another problem is that Barron transforms from a broken-down girl to a confident woman and back again with little or no reason.
The rest of the cast is equally difficult to watch–they came across as unprepared. The script doesn’t help either since none of the secondary cast members are given any sort of development.
Angelo Badalamenti’s score helps convey the emotions of the film, but the music does not fully agree with the action appearing on screen. In fact, the soundtrack to the film is also confusing. As you watch the film you wonder why Neil Diamond songs are playing while the action takes place in India. And why is Barron singing "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morisette as she drives towards her Aunt Puss’ emu farm? Don’t expect an answer.
One thing that saves this film from utter disaster is the amazing cinematography. The film is full of landscape shots and sunsets that make you long for the Australian desert. Unfortunately, the scenery is not enough to warrant seeing this film.
Holy Smoke opens Mar. 17 at the Globe cinema.