In her "Holy Smoke!," director Jane Campion strives to instigate an apocalyptic battle of the sexes. But the pitched struggle between piggish, patriarchal hegemony and female empowerment that she's so intent on dramatizing never quite materializes.
Campion -- who co-wrote the film's screenplay with her sister Anna -- has a track record of populating her movies ("The Piano," "Sweetie" and an adaptation of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady") with compelling heroines. We can now add sturdy, earthy Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) to that roster: An Australian woman who's been converted to the teachings of an Eastern guru, Ruth is as formidable while striding across an Indian cityscape as she is driving through an isolated area near Sydney and screaming along with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." It's immediately obvious that she'd be no one to tangle with in a one-on-one battle of wills.
Ruth's family, a gang of fun-loving dim bulbs that's headed by sweetly sentimental mom Miriam (Julie Hamilton), will do whatever it takes to wrest their country-hopping prodigal daughter from her unconventional spiritual path. But the surreal, impressionistic, evocatively photographed scenes of Ruth's ecstatic experiences certainly look more appealing than the humdrum routine (and the clueless cast of relatives and friends) that awaits her back home.
The family's best hope is P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a strutting tough guy in cowboy boots who brags about his ability to break young people of their newfound religious beliefs. Hired by the Barrons for a huge fee, this American "exiter" of wayward children easily fools his clients into believing his bravado.
A white lie and Miriam's pleadings trick the wandering Ruth into leaving her perceived paradise for the family nest in suburban San Souci. Soon enough, she's carted off to an outback farmhouse, an isolated retreat that's identified as Mount Emu Farm, Wee Waa. There, she comes face to face with the vain, oversexed P.J.'s psychological gobbledygook.
P.J.'s labors earn the family's admiration -- Ruth's loopy, lonely sister-in-law (Sophie Lee) even decides that this self-styled cosmic cowboy is exactly the carnal adventure she needs. But we've already been shown that he's merely a sleazy opportunist who's willing to prey on troubled families and thus little more than a straw man for the script to knock down. The only question is how many pushes it's going to take.
Winslet, last seen as a hippie-chick mother traipsing the globe in search of the divine in "Hideous Kinky," takes another artistic leap forward with "Holy Smoke!": Ruth's spiritual resolve is absolutely convincing. Too bad the Campions didn't put more energy into creating a worthier adversary.