These days, great rock & roll moments occur all too rarely in movies, but director Jane Campion has come up with a smashing one in Holy Smoke! Her heroine, a young Australian beauty named Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), is driving through the desert on the outskirts of Sydney, having just returned from India, where she fell under the spell of a mystical guru. Ruth, still clad in a sari, may have seen her inner light, but she’s no flower child. Singing along with Alanis Morissette’s ”You Oughta Know,” she matches the singer snarl for snarl, and then, outside the car, she swirls to the music like Stevie Nicks on a revenge jag.
Winslet is the sort of actress who can rage at the heavens and reach for them at the same time. In ”Holy Smoke!,” her Ruth is pitted against a man who has it within him to break her spirit — PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), a swaggering, ’70s-style cult ”exiter” who is hired by Ruth’s family to deprogram her. The two hole up in an isolated cottage in the middle of the outback, and what transpires there can best be described as a knockabout fusion of sexual warfare, New Age therapy, cross-generational Socratic dialogue, and feminist role reversal.
”Holy Smoke!” would like to be a revved-up replay of Campion’s ”The Piano” crossed with ”Swept Away.” PJ, who thinks nothing of seducing Ruth’s dimply-sexy sister-in-law (Sophie Lee), is the director’s idea of a narcissistic patriarch stud who needs to be cut down to size. Ruth is the one to do it, too. Her devotion to Eastern transcendentalism may be as skin-deep as PJ thinks, but the film’s upshot is that her religion is no more deluded than his middle-aged macho ego. After a while, she’s dabbing lipstick on her overseer and making him wear a red cocktail dress, and he’s weeping in ”reborn” approval. You haven’t seen full-blown male sensitivity until you’ve watched Harvey Keitel howl in the middle of the desert as he gets in touch with his feminine side.
Campion is a major filmmaker who needs to outgrow her ideological astringency, which is starting to look très early ’90s. Keitel, magnetic as he is, no longer works as a symbol of what’s sexy — or wrong — with modern manhood. His PJ just seems like a sleazebag waiting for comeuppance. Winslet has a ravishing anger and directness (she bares her earth-mother body with casual abandon), but she’d come off better if Campion didn’t insist on sanctifying her. Too tightly made not to keep you watching, ”Holy Smoke!” is also too hokey and didactic to take seriously.