Holy Smoke (2000): Jane (The Piano) Campion’s Feature on Sexual Politics and Fanatic Religion, Starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel

The Oscar-winning director Jane Campion (The Piano) tackles two provocative (taboo?) issues—sexual politics and fanatic religion–in her new movie, Holy Smoke, boasting bold performances from Kate Winslet (post-Titanic) and Harvey Keitel, tow of our most risk-taking actors.

Jane’s sister Anna Campion, herself a director, co-authored the loopy screenplay, which defies the structure of classic narratives.

Winslet plays a young attractive Aussie woman named Ruth, who goes to India, where she experiences a spiritual awakening personality transformation, a result of the impact of the persuasive teaching (is it brain-washing?) of a charismatic guru named Baba.

Back home in Sydney, Ruth’s mother and father (Julie Hamilton and Tim Robertson, respectively) are alarmed and appalled to learn that their daughter has changed her name to Nazni and has no intention of returning home.

The more vocal and active of the parents, the mother visits Ruth in India, hoping to take home. It’s not an easy task—and it takes great efforts. In fact, it’s not until she suffers a nearly fatal asthma attack that Ruth agrees to return for a visit.

The manipulative mother pretends to arrange a meeting with Ruth’s father, who has been ill, a trick that brings Ruth to P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), an American exit counselor, whose specialty is to deprogram members of fanatic religious cults.
Just as Waters begins to loosen Ruth’s belief in Baba’s philosophy, he crosses the line and finds himself sexually attracted to Ruth. Soon, the two are involved in a steamy affair that violates all professional ethics.

But Ruth pulls courage, when she turns the tables on P.J., as she discovers that sex allows her to make mincemeat of his long-held beliefs as a misogynist male.

The 1970s exploitation star, Pam Grier, makes a brief appearance, showing up (out of the blue) as P.J.’s partner and girlfriend, which only increases the already many tensions in the ambiguous text.

“Holy Smoke,” which most critics (mis)took to be a serious drama, missing the critical and satirical tone of the picture, was the second box-office failure of Campion after the equally audacious “Portrait of a Lady,” a black-and white gusty version of Henry James’ famous novel, starring Nicole Kidman.

Be warned: “Holy Smoke” is a tough and intense movie to watch. Among many taboo-breaking scenes—by standards of mainstream cinema–the fearless Winslet appears totally nude in several scene, and in one is shown urinating.


Running time: 114 Minutes
Directed by Jane Campion
Screenplay: Jane Campion, Anna Campion