Holy Smoke

USA 1999

Film still for Holy Smoke

Reviewed by Stella Bruzzi


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Delhi, India. Young Australian Ruth Barron joins a cult, leaving her friend Prue to return to Sydney alone. Prue tells Ruth's horrified family of her friend's conversion. To lure her back, Ruth's mother Miriam travels to Delhi and pretends Ruth's father Gilbert is dying. They fly home.

P.J. Waters, an American "cult exiter", is hired by Ruth's family. He begins his three-day deprogramming of Ruth in a shack in the outback. On the evening of day two, Ruth starts to break. P.J. shows the family a video about cults and brainwashing. Later, Ruth and P.J. have sex. On day three, Ruth joins her gay brother and mates at the local pub, where P.J. saves her from being gang raped. Carol - P.J.'s partner - arrives unexpectedly. Ruth and P.J., who is now besotted with Ruth, argue about religion among other things. She dresses him up in women's clothes. The family arrive. P.J. locks Ruth in the boot of his car so she won't reveal what's happened between them, but her sister-in-law Yvonne lets her out. Ruth runs off, chased by a hallucinating P.J., who offers to return to the cult with her. In the bed of the family truck, Ruth and P.J. embrace. One year later. Ruth is living in India, and P.J. and Carol have twins. P.J. and Ruth continue to correspond.


Holy Smoke is an exquisite and unexpected film. Frank Auerbach once remarked that fellow British painter Michael Andrews was a great artist because he only ever produced masterpieces; a similar tribute could almost be paid to Jane Campion, despite the odd blip, such as The Portrait of a Lady, a film weighed down by the expectations generated by The Piano. Paradoxically, despite the echoes in Holy Smoke of earlier work such as Sweetie and Passionless Moments, the latest film is mature and finely polished. Both in style and subject, Campion has abandoned the earnest precision of the crinoline genre and has resuscitated the light, witty touch she displayed in her films set largely in modern times. For all its stylistic richness, The Piano lacked spontaneity; Holy Smoke - the story of recent cult convert Ruth Barron's confrontation and eventual relationship with "cult exiter" P.J. Waters - is vibrant, alive, and comes more from the heart than the head.

Symptomatic of this shift towards imaginative exuberance is Campion's abandonment of Stuart Dryburgh's lush but convoluted camerawork (his swooping, vertiginous helicopter shot over the New Zealand cliffs in The Piano is now an oft-imitated cliché). Shot by Antipodean DP Dion Beebe (Crush), Holy Smoke's style is more playful. Its mise en scène juxtaposes mundane detail with pyrotechnic flights of fancy (for instance, the garish, hypnotic Pierre et Gillesesque sequence marking Ruth's conversion, or P.J.'s hazy, love-fuelled vision of Ruth as a six-armed goddess). In both The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady such extravagances jarred (remember the 'talking' lima beans in Portrait?); here they're tropes integral to the narrative and keys to understanding Ruth and P.J.

Holy Smoke is ostensibly a film about cults and cultism, in much the same way as Sweetie and Angel at My Table were about mental illness. But as with those films, what makes Holy Smoke so joyous (as if Campion herself is finding the means to express her liberation from the costume film's stays) is the fact that the subject matter never constricts the film. It's only one element in a much richer narrative centring on the ambiguities of characters and relationships, Campion's most consistent preoccupation.

On paper, the love affair between cult member Ruth and her deprogrammer P.J. sounds like a cliché. But in Campion's hands their liaison becomes emblematic of how power trickles back and forth between lovers. By degrees, P.J. and Ruth's roles are reversed as she becomes his guru. Holy Smoke doesn't judge their mutual dependence: Ruth's susceptibility is an imaginative need, a craving for a life freed from banality, hence the preponderance of subjective fantasy sequences. At first P.J. is characterised by a lack of fantasy, but by the end he has discovered a comparable desire for imaginative liberation as he permits her to dress him in a provocative red dress, to daub his lips with matching lipstick and to transform his life. Existence is a chain; we learn from and mimic each other.

In this way, cultism may be the catalyst for the action in Holy Smoke, but it is essentially a film about the tenuousness of most people's sense of self - our decentredness, our malleability, our vulnerability in the face of our own desires and the manipulative skills of others. Everyone in the film, not just Ruth, is impressionable (there's her mother who returns to India with her at the end; there's her sister-in-law who, when she isn't imagining sex with film stars, falls for P.J. in much the same irrational way as Ruth did), and they all, in the chaos that pervades the whole film, are attracted to each other in a desperate attempt to flee from themselves.

Certainty and identity are learned, not innate. In delivering this idea, Holy Smoke is Campion's most superficial film, brimming with visual trickery, sudden changes of direction, unpredictable characters. It is ultimately about reconciling imagination with reality. Just as the film marries fantasy and realism, so the characters, having undergone their own tortured and extreme awakenings, become reconciled to compromise. Across continents Ruth and P.J. become virtual lovers, a state of being, the film suggests, we're all in. Holy Smoke can be read as a text of reconciliation: between realism and surrealism, earnestness and irreverence, oneself and the world. It is an immense, emotional, engrossing film that nevertheless wears its brilliance casually.


Jane Campion
Anna Campion
Jane Campion
Director of Photography
Dion Beebe
Veronika Jenet
Production Designer
Janet Patterson
Angelo Badalamenti
©Miramax Film Corp
Production Company
Miramax Films presents
a Jan Chapman production
Executive Producers
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Julie Goldstein
Jan Chapman
Line Producer
Cathy Bishop
Associate Producer
Mark Turnbull
Production Associate
Indian Crew:
Antonia Barnard
Production Co-ordinators
Clare Shervington
Indian Crew:
Rudabah Nanporia
2nd Unit Co-ordinator
Daniel Read
Unit Managers
Simon Lucas
Wil Milne
Indian Crew:
Pravesh Sahni
Location Manager
Maude Heath
Locations Manager
Indian Crew:
Sanjay Kumar
Location Co-ordinator
Indian Crew:
Rajeev Mehra
Base Liaison
Sally Chesher
Pushkar Liaison
Indian Crew:
Dilip Kumar
Post-production Supervisor
Catherine Bishop
2nd Unit Director
Jackie Farkas
Assistant Directors
Mark Turnbull
Jane Griffin
Marty Hallman
Julian Ryan
2nd Unit:
Simon Warnock
Indian Crew:
Hasan Kutty
Kudleep Khangarot
Lynn-Maree Danzey
Alison Barrett Casting
Billy Hopkins
Suzanne Smith
Kerry Barden
Indian Crew:
Uma Da Cunha
US Associates:
Mark Bennett
Jennifer McNamara
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Jackie Farkas
Camera Operator
Dion Beebe
Visual Effects
Animal Logic
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Andy Brown
Executive Producer:
Zareh Nalbandian
Fiona Crawford
Lead Compositor:
Kirsty Millar

Charlie Armstrong
Robin Cave
Leonie Willis
3D Animator:
Aiden Sarsfield
Technical Support:
Naomi Hatchman
Aaron Barclay
Special Effects
Studio Kite
Steve Rosewell
Warren Beaton
Marcus Erazmus
Art Directors
Tony Campbell
Chris Elliott
Indian Crew:
Nitin Desai
Set Decorators
Rebecca Cohen
Lisa Thompson
Godric Cole
Beth Pickworth
Indian Crew Draftsman
David Soures
Scenic Artist
Matt Connors
Costume Designers
Janet Patterson
Angus Strathie
Costume Supervisor
Paula Ryan
Hair/Make-up Supervisor
Noriko Watanabe
Make-up/Hair Artists
Noreen Wilkie
Kylie Marr
Additional Make-up/Hair
Margaret Aston
Title Design/Production
Animal Logic
Andy Brown
Executive Producer:
Zareh Nalbandian
Fiona Crawford
Kirsty Millar
Chris Bone
3D Animator:
Brett Feeney
End Titles
Optical & Graphic
SOS Digital
Richard Springett
Score Conductors/
Angelo Badalamenti
Phil Marshall
Music Editor
Julie Pearce
Chief Engineer
Gary Chester
Music Consultant/
Christine Woodruff
Music Consultant to Jane Campion
Andrew Kotatko
"Holly Holy", "I Am ...I Said" performed by Neil Diamond; "Trust in Me" performed by Rani; "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette, Glen Ballard, performed by Alanis Morissette; "Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again" performed by The Angels; "I Put a Spell on You" performed by The Angels; "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" performed by Jimmy Boyd; "The Lord's Prayer" by A.H. Malotte; "Baby It's You" by Burt Bacharach, Mack David, Barney Williams, performed by The Shirelles; "Pucho Jara Puchho", "Jo Tumhe Chahe Us Ko" by Nadeem, Sameer, performed by Kumar Sanu, Alka Yagnik &chorus; "Gem Song" by Kishore performed by DJ Gem; "Indian Asram Music" by Shiva Vyas, performed by Shiva Vyas & company; "Primitive" by/performed by Annie Lennox; "Maya, Mayi Ma - The Celebration" by Angelo Badalamenti, Chloe Goodchild, arranged by Angelo Badalamenti, performed by Chloe Goodchild
Tobin Saunders
Sound Design
Lee Smith
Sound Recording
Ben Osmo
Sound Mixer
Roger Savage
Production Dialogue Editor
Tim Jordan
Effects Editor
Peter Townend
Karin Whittington
Nicholas Grusovin
Simon Hewittson
John Simpson
Religious Consultant
John Cleary
Adviser/Muse to the Director
Penny Allen
Stunt Co-ordinator
Lawrence Woodward
Animal Wrangler
Evanne Chesson
Kate Winslet
Ruth Barron
Harvey Keitel
Peter John 'P.J.' Waters
Pam Grier
Julie Hamilton
Miriam, mum
Tim Robertson
Gilbert, dad
Sophie Lee
Yvonne, Robert's wife
Daniel Wylie
Paul Goddard
George Mangos
Kerry Walker
Leslie Dayman
Samantha Murray
Austen Tayshus
Simon Anderson
Eve Martin
Mira Wright
Polly Wright
Lior Aizenberg
S. Samaran
Michelle Abel
Adina Kumar
Jeff Silverman
Andreas Wagner
Vandana Mohindra
Saurabh Srinivasan
dancing boys
Dhritiman Chaterji
Chidaatma Baba
Genevieve Lemon
Robert Joseph
Miriam's taxi driver
Valerie Thomas
Miriam's double
boy who runs with taxi
John Samaha
Chatiwall, Shiva's diner
Jane Edwards
Miranda Cleary
Priya's daughter
Tamsin Carroll
T'mara Buckmaster
Ante Novakovic
man with trolley
Diana Kotatko
Patricia Lemon
women with trolley
Ethan Coker
Toddy Barron
Ellie Burchell
Tiffany Barron
Morgan Watt
Luke Testo
William Mackay
David Franco
Eleanor Knox
Doc Neeson
Rick Brewster
John Brewster
Jim Hilburn
Brent Eccles
Mark Gray
dope peddler
Cameron McAuliffe
Tim Rogers
Johannes 'Maddy' Brinkmann
Ruth's boyfriend
Eric Schussler
Joan Bodgen
Robert Lee
cult video reporters
Film Four Distributors
10,311 feet
114 minutes 35 seconds
Dolby digital
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011