Published Mar 01, 2000Harvey Keitel is no stranger to films with religious or spiritual themes; his first major role was the troubled, lapsed Catholic in Scorsese's Mean Streets. You'd think he'd know better than to accept a script as weak as Holy Smoke; his strong screen presence (along with Kate Winslet's) isn't enough to save this mess. Smoke begins as a movie about a young woman, Ruth (Winslet), "brainwashed" into an Indian cult, and the spiritual expert, P.J. Waters (Keitel), who tries to deprogram her. When Ruth's parents learn that she is following a guru, they bring her back to her native Australia and virtually force her into P.J.'s three-day curing program, which takes place in a secluded outback hut. He tries to manipulate her into breaking out of her shell with Socratic conversations and destroying her Indian clothes while she sleeps. But predictably, his physical attraction to her interferes. From here, the film somehow evolves into a weird new-age love story in which Ruth and P.J. take turns manipulating each other, both psychologically and sexually. Sounds fascinating, but it isn't. The ever-pretentious writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano) fills her film with pretty camera work to disguise the fact that she doesn't know what she wants to say. She uses Keitel and Winslet's roles not as characters but as mouthpieces for contrived discourse on spiritual and gender/sexual issues, none of which ever connect. What's being satirised here: Eastern or Western mentality? Male or female neuroses? Campion can't mix them all, but she tries anyway. Not only are the themes incoherent, so is the tone. Campion throws in a lot of hokey sight gags that just don't belong in a character-driven drama with "serious" themes. (And the timing of the jokes is pretty bad too.) It just reveals more of her desperation to score with this confused embarrassment.