Holy Smoke (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Jane Campion
viewed: 02/20/10

Since watching An Angel at My Table (1990) and Bright Star (2009) last year, I’ve been on a determined path to catch up by watching all of director Jane Campion’s films.  No real order to this, so I’ve selected a sort of odd film of hers here, 1999’s Holy Smoke which is perhaps most pointedly, compared to her other films, a comedy.  All of her films seem to have comic elements at times, but in this case, the whole cast is a bit of an over-the-top decpiction of the Australian family.

While Campion herself is from New Zealand, this film is about a suburban Sydney family who fears that their wayward daughter (played by always charming Kate Winslet) has fallen under the spell of an Indian mystic and has turned into a cultist.  They hire a hot-shot American deprogrammer (played by Harvey Keitel) to come out and break her.  The whole thing turns hurdy-gurdy and eventually climbs to pretty significant absurdist heights.

I’ve noted before, which may or may not be true but there seems in Australian cinema, a picture of Aussies as pretty freaking loopy.  The semi-nuclear family here features some broads caricatures of the gay brother and his boyfriend, the straight brother and his flowzy tart of a wife, the over-bearing but well-meaning mom, and a whole cast of other characters who I never fully got a grasp on their relationships.  To a big extent, this is one of the film’s main characteristics.

But the film is about the highly-confident deprogrammer who goes on his own Australian adventure, drawn in by the rebelious, sexy Winslet, who is both broken according to plan but also manages to “break” her deprogrammer too.

I’d say this film is by no means as strong as Campion’s other films, though it has its charms.  Winslet and Keitel are both compelling.  Winslet’s slutty sister-in-law, played by the tarty Sophie Lee is also quite funny.

But after having become a bit of an “Intervention” junky (the A&E television series that depicts real interventions, though not deprogrammings), some of the methodology and approach seemed kind of strange and suspect.  I guess it’s not really meant to be taken seriously, though it does raise some interesting points, such as whose reality is genuine?  I mean, her family lovingly commits to trying to bring her back, but they are a kook-fest of their own and Keitel’s version of reality becomes so compromised that it’s hard to know just what the grounding is for the ultimate return to “sanity”.  Though the film does find its way there eventually.

I’d say this is definitely a lesser Campion film, but one that might be interesting in an Australian cinema analysis.