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"Holy Smoke," the latest from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, is mesmerizingly bad.

An Unholy Mess

It is an unfortunate truth that Australian writer-director Jane Campion's talents have been on a downward slide since winning the Best Picture Oscar for "The Piano." Despite the hopes of her many fans — myself included — Campion's latest, "Holy Smoke," does not reverse the trend. Although it boasts a fierce and fearless performance by Kate Winslet, "Holy Smoke" remains a muddled mess of social, sexual and secular pretensions.

From its too-cutesy title to its "one year later" denouement, viewers sit stunned, wondering what on earth are Campion and sister Anna, who co-wrote the horrendous dialogue, trying to tell us? That parents often err on the side of caution? That the devil is most often found in religion? That the Australian middle class is a hotbed of sanctimonious prevaricators, fornicators and boors? That Harvey Keitel is a wonderful actor but not a sex symbol?

"Holy Smoke" begins well enough, offering us a smart and sharp look at the teeming streets of New Delhi through the eyes of Ruth (Winslet) and Prue (Samantha Murray). Hot, sweaty and out of their element, the two are at the point of visual and tactile overload. At that moment, something clean and cool and cheerful comes into their line of vision. Before Prue knows what's happening, Ruth becomes enamored with the beliefs of a particular guru and decides to stay.

Back home in Australia, word of Ruth's conversion sends her middle-class family into a tizzy. Believing she's been manipulated into a cult, they spare no expense to bring her back to her senses, to her family and, most importantly, to her true religion — the fact that none of them can get past the third line of The Lord's Prayer, notwithstanding.

The family hires an aging American deprogrammer named P.J. Waters (Keitel in cowboy boots), and he and Ruth's mother Miriam (Julie Hamilton) head off to India to deceive her into coming home. As long as the script sticks to Miriam and Ruth's relationship and her rather oddball family, "Holy Smoke" is spontaneous, smart and wacky. The scenes in India, with poor Miriam trying to cope with beggars, the heat, the dust and pit toilets have a startling immediacy and genuine panic.

But when the movie turns into an outback showdown between Ruth and Waters, "Holy Smoke" becomes an ungodly mess. A battle of wills between two equally matched opponents ensues, with the power shifting back and forth, back and forth. Neither will give an inch, and both hold fast to the knowledge that they alone are right. Deprogramming soon falls by the wayside and the battle of wills mutates into the age-old battle between the sheets.

That ultimate battle ends with Keitel wandering the outback wearing smeared red lipstick and a clingy red frock. Oh yes, and one scuffed cowboy boot. While many will want to catch "Holy Smoke" for Winslet's nudity, be forewarned, the unforgettable image will be Keitel in drag. As intriguing as Keitel's character sounds, his execution is fuzzy and off-kilter. Part of the problem is the dialogue. He never seems real, but is something of a stereotype composite of all the shady, unfeeling characters he plays.

Winslet, on the other hand, is far better than the script and movie deserves. Focused and in control of both her character and her performance, she forces us to watch "Holy Smoke" to the bitter, silly end. The only part of the movie that comes close to matching Winslet's performance is Dion Beebe's stunning cinematography.

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