Review: “Holy Smoke”

Jane Campion’s latest film about sex & religion is actually a lot like one of the most cherished icons of that latter subject – the Bible. It’s split down the middle with the first half told in almost an entirely different tone than the second, and just like the Bible its the first half that’s far more entertaining.

The most successful Australian films have been those unconventional comedies such as “Crocodile Dundee”, “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”, “Muriel’s Wedding” and the more recent “Two Hands”. The first half of “Holy Smoke” is up on that level with fast pacing and jaunts between the squalor of downtown Delhi to the Southern suburban areas of Sydney. Campion has created a rather eccentric family with all the characters being brilliantly played, especially Julie Hamilton as Ruth’s asthmatic mom.

Subtleties ranging from the unusual suburb names printed in Navy-like captions on the screen, to the slightly satirical reality in which these characters inhabit (anyone else notice how out of date the mobile phones seemed) will be enjoyed by Australian audiences but confuse international ones who will probably think we all actually live like that. Many of these characters only get a few minutes screentime and really deserved a hell of a lot more.

Then the second half of the film begins which is basically 90% Keitel & Winslet talking and arguing in a desert shack. This is where the tone completely changes from an offbeat satire to a rather dark battle of wills. Sadly the battle is rather disappointing as not only is the dialogue relatively plain (no sparkling insults to each other), but the actions that take place just don’t fit.

Both Winslet & Keitel give great performances which involve some quite brave work that other actors would balk at. Still, the characters they inhabit though aren’t as engaging as they should be. These are both intelligent & strong-willed people, which makes her devout belief in this new religion and his sudden attraction toward her both unbelievable and out-of-character. With the laughs gone, the film just sinks more and more into a weird & dark place with the romance springing between the characters feeling rather forced.

Taken as a serious movie, Campion’s story seems to be struggling to make a point about something, though what that point is I haven’t a clue (and it’s never explained). As a satire, it hits its peak early on and then sinks like a stone. What’s really missing is just a general sense of direction. The setup to get Winslet and Keitel to the cabin is superb (Keitel’s arrival at Sydney airport is a great scene), but once there the movie feels like everything was being made up as they went along with no clear plan to work with. This is a film for Campion, Winslet or Keitel fans only.