I would call Holy Smoke a drawing-room comedy if the film showed a drawing room, a comedy of manners if its characters had any. It is the story of a bright and willful young woman who abruptly decides to marry someone whom her family, and the audience, find unthinkable as husband and procreator.
Her affections must be alienated from Mr. Improbable; and so parents, siblings and in-laws ditheringly conspire to toss her together with someone else. Bad idea! Although the fellow the family selects is cocksure, mercenary and certain to go away once the job is done, he falls abjectly for a woman who was supposed to have been his conquest. Chaos ensues unto the third act, when Mr. Improbable, like all plot catalysts, is left behind.
Had Holy Smoke been filmed in the thirties, with this plot fleshed out by Philip Barry, the young woman would have been Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant could have played the mercenary cad, and Mr. Improbable might have been a powerful but rough-talking older man, as embodied by someone like Edward Arnold. But we’re in 2000, and Holy Smoke has been directed by Jane Campion, from a screenplay she wrote with her sister Anna. The unsuitable fiancé is now an Indian guru called Yani (George Mangos). The cad, P.J. Waters, is an American specialist in cults and deprogramming, played by Harvey Keitel in an all-black outfit with sharp-toed cowboy boots; and Ruth, the willful young beauty from a suburb of Sydney, is Kate Winslet. When it’s time for her to bathe in moonlight, she does not rustle her diaphanous gown through the French doors of a Main Line drawing room. She emerges like a feral creature–naked, moist and furious–from the Australian outback.
Now, the naked, moist fury of Kate Winslet can be powerfully distracting. (I might say the same for the landscape into which she’s been plunked. It’s a howling void, which sucks out your brain.) Whereas yesterday’s madcaps may have settled for cocktail-shaker eccentricity, Campion insists on deep-down craziness, of the kind that cooks your juices. But the sense of fun is there in Holy Smoke, all the same, along with a notion that underlies much safer comedies of manners: “love” (whatever that is) holds society together, and “love” can blast it apart.
For Ruth, love at first comes with no quotation marks. It is a spiritual force, capable of smacking her right between the eyes. While on a $5-a-day tour of India, she has visited a guru, just to get her money’s worth, little expecting that he would beam his way toward her through the writhing throng, or that with a single touch he would send her into an ecstasy of computer graphics. A many-petaled Ruth suddenly blossoms in eternity, to the twanging of sitars. Even after the special effects subside, she continues to sense Yani’s power and wants to be joined with him. She will remain in India; she will undertake spiritual marriage to the guru, amid his latest crowd of brides.
Ruth’s traveling companion, who brings back the news to Mum and Dad, natters about hypnotism; but Campion leaves us no doubt that the guru does radiate a something-or-other. Now that Ruth has felt it, she recognizes her parents’ kind of love as a mere social arrangement, absurd in its flimsiness. Look at its canned gestures, its empty grins! Campion puts them on show in a brief montage of Ruth’s past suitors, whose strong teeth and weak foreheads go flashing through her memory. But to Ruth’s family, the norms of middle-class Australia are as substantial as life itself. How can she throw herself away like this, dressed up in a sari and dancing in a temple, when she could be a normal person, dressed up like a cowgirl and dancing at the pub’s Disco Night?