When Ruth (Kate Winslet) visited India on holiday, she had an encounter which meant far more to her than she ever anticipated. Now she was full of the peace and love ethos of a cult guru there and planned to stay on in the country and leave her former life behind, much to the alarm of her mother (Julie Hamilton) who was determined to bring her wayward daughter back. After being told of the situation by Ruth's friend, a plan was concocted: they would pretend that Ruth's father (Tim Robertson) was seriously ill then send Mum to India to fetch her. Surely Ruth wouldn't turn down that invitation?
Well, yes she would if she thinks she can say goodbye to her dad in the next life, to her mother's dismay, so much so that the middle-aged woman collapses of an asthma attack soon after having her offer beatifically thrown back in her face. Ruth has to accompany her back to Australia now, and when she does the family pounces: they have arranged a cult deprogrammer to see to it that she leaves all this religious brainwashing behind, but the question we have to ask is whether she's leaving one form of brainwashing for another kind? Is she really any better stuck in suburbia than she is acting all spiritual in Delhi?
The answer to that question was something director Jane Campion, here scripting with her sister Anna Campion, shyed away from for the most part, preferring to allow the audience to make up their own minds, and effectively conceiving this as a two-hander between Ruth and the so-called "exiter", PJ Waters, played by Campion's star of her arthouse hit The Piano, Harvey Keitel. The thought of two not inconsiderable acting talents like him and Winslet facing off against each other was enough to generate some degree of interest among fans of such challenging drama, but not everyone was happy with the artificial results, with the sense that they were eavesdropping in on a psychotherapy session, or worse an actors' workshop, unconvincing and working against the desired effect.
But if you were willing to put aside such reservations, there were some intriguing elements to Holy Smoke, mainly due to the viewer unsure whose side they were meant to be on. It was true enough that some religious cults were extremely damaging and dehumanising, but Ruth is so rebellious in her unwanted treatment that you may have found yourself wanting her to score a victory against those who were so reluctant to let her make her own mistakes in her own way, and therefore learn from them to live and fight another day. Maybe not even fight: simply achieve some inner contentment be that religious or otherwise, but first she had to get through these three days in a hut out in the middle of the Outback where she is held against her will.
Predictably with these performers, the sexual aspect soon raised its head, with PJ first getting satisfaction from Ruth's starstruck sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee), then when alone with his subject she practically demands he take her to bed. Turns out this is all part of her using her feminine wiles to prove to him she is more powerful in a battle of wills than he is, though many men in that situation would be presumably not be too bothered about being taken sexual advantage of by Kate Winslet. Then again, the relationship politics were somewhat confused here, and you had to assume that was deliberate on the Campions' part, so that by the conclusion where PJ was driving a car decked out like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer after Ruth understandably woozy since he'd previously stuffed her into the boot of said vehicle, you had to admit many people were more complicated than they would think and forcing their hand on lifestyle choices wasn't always going to be for the best, even if you had the noblest motivation - yet catharsis was always a possibility. Music by Angelo Badalamenti.