Rescuer Down Under

Rescuer Down Under

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.


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?

Jane Campion adores Disco Night. She’s also nuts for suburban décor–the ceilings of the parents’ house seem to have been pulled low, the better to contain a potentially explosive combination of patterns and colors–and for the people who like to live in these places. They can philander, belch and fall flat on their faces, bless them, all without blushing. Ruth may think them stupid and false, Mum excepted; but their raucousness is vital, and impressive in its way.

Still, it’s feeble compared with the force of P.J. Waters. Though an agent of “normal life,” he shares with the guru an ability to radiate something-or-other. He even has the power to stride to the front of the line at an airport. All right, he can’t levitate–but P.J. is strong enough to be a worthy antagonist to Ruth. Once he’s locked away with her in a shack in the outback, the struggle becomes ideological, intellectual and sexual all at once, and so mixed up that after two days, neither party understands what’s happening between them.

I’m glad to say I was confused, too. As much as I admire the fierceness of Winslet’s acting, which is unbuttoned in the fullest sense of the term; as much as I smile at Keitel (and nod ruefully at the truth of his plea, “I was young once, and handsome”), the best feature of Holy Smoke, to me, is its willingness to plunge into the human muddle.

That was the quality missing from The Piano–the Campion film that the rest of the world likes. In that picture, everything was decided in advance; the characters might as well have been hand puppets. But in Holy Smoke, as in all her best work, Campion doesn’t move people around. She lets herself observe Ruth and P.J., looking on from a slight distance and (often enough) an odd angle; and what she sees surprises her.

What an immense gift, to be capable of surprise! It knocks the manners out of comedy; it changes power into love. If you were Ruth and wanted another word for it, you might call this freedom.

Before today’s great Iranian filmmakers went out to the streets, to shoot with nonprofessional actors; before the Italian neorealists traveled to Sicily to discover a raw, “primitive” condition within their own country, the British director Michael Powell sailed to Scotland’s outer islands and made The Edge of the World. Shot in 1936 on Foula, using a dozen actors and all the local residents, the film dramatized the end of a traditional farming, fishing and herding community.

Like Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (which was released in 1931, providing Powell with one of his few possible models), The Edge of the World is one part ethnography to two parts romance. A young man (Niall MacGinnis) engages a friend in a reckless rock-climbing competition, loves and temporarily loses the friend’s sister (Belle Chrystall) and unwittingly dooms his community to extinction by leaving to find work on the mainland. As drama, the film is thin. (Powell was to do better in the future, once he teamed up with scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger.) But as a poem of looming cliff sides and craggy human faces, of crashing waves and colliding sheep, The Edge of the World is unforgettable.

Unseen for many years in the United States, The Edge of the World is now being re-released by Milestone Film and Video in a restored print (on view in New York at Film Forum, January 14-20). It’s a treat. You get a full measure of the visual splendor and directorial daring for which Powell is celebrated–how did he persuade his cameramen and actors to keep risking their necks?–plus a touch of the rustic humor of a later masterpiece, I Know Where I’m Going.

The restoration of The Edge of the World has been carried out by the British Film Institute, and the Milestone re-release is going out under the aegis of one of Michael Powell’s greatest admirers, Martin Scorsese. Thanks to all.

* * *

Screening Schedule: There’s thick-sliced Jewish film culture in New York City this month at the ninth annual New York Jewish Film Festival. Presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the festival this year includes local and US premieres of new works (Abraham Ségal’s documentary on the apostle Paul; Jean-Jacques Zilberman’s in-and-out-of-the-closet French farce, Man Is a Woman) and of historic rediscoveries (the 1933 Yiddish featurette Der Vanderner Yid, featuring Jacob Ben-Ami; the pioneering 1919 gay-rights film Different From the Others). The series is on view at Lincoln Center January 16-27. Information: (212) 875-5600 or

And for more, there’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a cheerful, straightforward documentary by Aviva Kempner, on view at Film Forum January 12-25. For those who have forgotten or never knew, Greenberg was the first Jewish star in major league baseball, winning batting championships and repeatedly leading the Tigers to the pennant during the years when Henry Ford and Father Coughlin had made Detroit the home of American anti-Semitism. For a more critical reflection on Greenberg as a breakthrough figure, you’d probably want to go to Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. For a pleasant tour through the main points of the story, with fascinating archival footage and a rendition in Yiddish of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” I can recommend Kempner.

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