Anne and Jane Campion's latest film about obsession, choice, faith and sex is a scattered effort that is by turns powerful and banal, but ultimately unconvincing.
The story centers on Ruth (Kate Winslet), a beautiful Australian who joins an Indian cult, and "exit counselor" P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), hired by her family to deprogram her.
Splendid acting, showing the gritty side of life, and provocative ideas can't prevail over an uneven script and downright unprofessional production. I was shocked to see the boom mike hanging into the shot in more than eight scenes.
Ruth's motivations throughout the film are unclear and shift with the wind. It's evident early on that Waters is no saint; Ruth even calls him a hypocrite. So why does her staunch resistance to his deprogramming suddenly evaporate, only to reappear later?
With all the talking in this movie, you'd think they could address Ruth's changing emotions. Interesting concepts float by regarding control of your soul, choice and desire, but any message is unfocused and there's no follow through.
Amid this confusion, we're treated to some beautiful, hazy shots of both Winslet and India and scenes where the earthy Ruth relishes being a strong, serene woman.
I particularly liked the sari-clad Ruth dancing wildly to an Alannis Morrisette song, and a liberating scene where she teaches her lover how she likes to be touched.
The Campions draw a nice contrast between the psychedelic unreality of India and Ruth's graceless, amoral family in Australia. You certainly see why - and what - she's trying to escape.
One of the scenes where Ruth's male relatives surround her and force her into deprogramming is more powerful than any of the shit the movie's disturbed characters put each other through.
Characters are deliberately put into degrading situations, without any motivation other than to shock. No wonder it falls flat. I'm not even going to discuss the ridiculous, pat epilogue. Watching Holy Smoke is an exercise in frustration.