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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 02/10/2000,

Holy Smoke

Not to beat a metaphor to death, but since hitting a high note with The Piano, Jane Campion's career has gone off-key. Portrait of Lady was ill-conceived, and her new Holy Smoke is schizoid -- perhaps because the screenplay and tie-in novel were co-written with her sister Anna, and both have a disconcerting, she-said/she-said discrepancy. At times pedantic, and at better times evincing the offbeat whimsy of Campion's Sweetie days (some of the greatest rewards come from watching the edge of the frame, where you might see a kid with a banana skin on his head or a sheep used as an hors d'oeuvre tray), the film labors toward some harmony, or at least an engaging dissonance.

What a mess it would have been without Kate Winslet, secretly the best actress of her generation, as Ruth Barron, a young Australian woman of no fixed beliefs who finds that her vacation to India has become much more when she crosses eyes with a guru and eternity opens up. Her doggedly bourgeois mother, Miriam (a priceless Julie Hamilton), tricks her back to the Outback, where she undergoes deprogramming from American expert P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel at his most truculent and disreputable and saddest).

The subsequent battle of the sects and sexes is less interesting than the actors' moments of inspiration and Campion's flights of fancy. Although the director has composed more-thoughtful fables about patriarchal oppression and its liberating overthrow, Holy Smoke endures because of its ephemera, its image of a nude Ruth, cunning and vulnerable in the desert dusk, or of a broken Waters, weeping in a red dress and one cowboy boot, chasing after the illusion of love. One of the most memorable moments comes when Ruth covertly signals for help -- perhaps Campion herself could use some to clarify her vision.

-- Peter Keough