Kate's great, but Campion's lost the plot

Holy Smoke (18) | Jane Campion | 144 mins | Trailer Mansfield Park (15) | Patricia Rozema | 112 mins | Trailer
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The Independent Culture

To employ an incongruous simile, Jane Campion's Holy Smoke resembles one of those remote-controlled toys that provoke tantrums on Christmas morning when it's discovered too late that batteries aren't included. Here for once is a film with a genuinely promising premise - a premise which then just sits there, waiting for someone to activate it. Frustration may set in after half an hour (as it did with me) or after an hour (as with my companion), but sooner or later most of the hopes and expectations one has invested in the film are disappointed. Nor is this just a reviewer's reaction. At the public screening I attended, the sense of an entire audience's sympathy withdrawing, like a receding tide, from the increasingly outlandish high jinks on the screen became almost tangible.

The premise? Vacationing in Delhi, a young Australian backpacker, Ruth (Kate Winslet), is bewitched by the teachings of a local guru and decides to surrender herself to his cult. Back in the Sydney suburbs, her horrified family immediately calls on the services of a professional deprogrammer, a so-called "exit counsellor", one PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel). As expected, however, Ruth is no pushover. As also expected, at least by anyone familiar with Campion's earlier work, notably The Piano, it's PJ who is deprogrammed by Ruth during their sessions together in a lonely outback hideaway - divested of all his blinkered rationality and latent misogyny - rather than vice versa.

There actually comes a point, late in the meandering plot-line, when we find ourselves confronted by the sight of Keitel wandering about the desert in a spectacularly unfetching scarlet dress. It's quite an image, I can tell you. But while it's obvious that this travestissement is intended to signify his ultimate defeat and emasculation in the sexual power struggle that Winslet and he have waged between them, I defy anyone to explain, step by step, how we got from here to there, from the premise to the punchline.

Somewhere along the way, the screenplay (by Campion and her sister Anna) entangles itself in a grossly caricatural portrait of Australian suburbanites, a portrait that feels as though it belongs to another film altogether. Somewhere along the way, it loses its focus on the surreal folie à deux that is what really interests us. And, somewhere along the same way, a thread snaps and our patience with it.

There is nevertheless, the odd effective scene aside, one good reason for seeing Holy Smoke: Kate Winslet. Not only does she render her character utterly credible, warm and abrasive, selfish and vulnerable, often within the space of a single shot; but throughout the narrative's tiresome twists and turns she commandeers the film with the sort of confident swagger that one has always tended to think of as the sole preserve of male performers. But then, she has a superbly photogenic physique, luscious, gorgeous, curvaceous, voluptuous and all those other now unfashionable female attributes that end in "ous". And if that seems a reprehensibly sexist remark, well, I can only say that it's all up there on the screen, which surely makes it a legitimate object of critical comment.

Adapting a classic novel to the cinema is not unlike transplanting a heart: the graft sometimes "takes" and sometimes doesn't. In the case of Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park the operation has been successful, but there are two prominent scenes that cause one to wonder whether the patient (the cinema) is about to reject the alien organ (literature). As one might expect, both of these scenes relate to the overt politicisationand eroticisation of Jane Austen's famously genteel sensibility, an aspect of this particular adaptation that has already generated mild journalistic "controversy".

In the first, our heroine, Fanny, chances across a Goyaesque sketchbook detailing the atrocities of slave-life on the Antiguan plantation of her wealthy benefactor. In the second, she glimpses, without swooning away, her own former suitor in flagrante with one of her cousins, both of them stark naked and hard at it. If, as Colette once suggested, you don't have to read the great books because they give off an aura, then it must be said that neither of these crass interpolations, which were presumably designed to render the novel "relevant" to contemporary audiences, gives off anything like the authentic Austen aura.

It wouldn't necessarily matter if Rozema had elected to give the source material a subversive tweak throughout, either stylistically or thematically (as Ruiz did with Proust). But since her Mansfield Park, if not precisely academic, is very much cinema in its Sunday best, these scenes could, and should, have been excised.

That said, the film is otherwise a very decent example of its debatable kind. At times, typically of Rozema's work, it gives off its own pungent aura of subtle sensuality, and it's marvellously well-acted, with nary a dud performance. Medals go to Frances O'Connor's tremulously feisty Fanny (not at all the novel's Fanny, though more than a fair exchange in this instance) and Harold Pinter's bumptious Sir Bertram, while everyone else deserves to be mentioned in dispatches.

A shame, then, about those two in-your-face scenes. Poor Jane would have shuddered at the notion of being in anyone's face.