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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary