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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 18:06 GMT

Holy Smoke: Winslet's back

All smiles: The Holy Smoke team at the Venice Film Festival

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

Director Jane Campion's latest film, which stars Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, has emerged as one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival.

In Holy Smoke, Keitel plays an American "spiritual" expert who is hired to free a young Australian woman from the influence of a guru in India, but succumbs to her sexual wiles.

[ image: Family Affair: Campion co-wrote the film with her sister]
Family Affair: Campion co-wrote the film with her sister
The film's director, Jane Campion, who was in New York to promote the film, says Holy Smoke is "in some ways about people's journey to the heart".

She co-wrote the screenplay with her sister Anna, not out of a fascination with cults but because she was "really interested in trying to approach a spiritual life today in the 90s, or try to understand it".

Raw emotion

Winslet has received some glowing reviews for her role which required her to speak with an Australian accent, appear stark naked, expose raw emotion and urinate outdoors while standing opposite Harvey Keitel.

[ image: Keitel also starred in The Piano (1993)]
Keitel also starred in The Piano (1993)
Campion has nothing but praise for Winslet whom she thinks is "an absolutely extraordinary young actor" who is extremely committed to her work.

Campion also thinks Winslet is a girl for her time, because "she has got a body shape which is individual and beautiful and not excessively thin".

The Campion sisters say the role of the cult de-programmer was written with Keitel in mind. The actor worked very effectively with Jane Campion before in her highly acclaimed 1992 film The Piano.

In Holy Smoke Keitel really breaks new ground, because - as a result of his character's mind games with the young woman he is trying to de-programme - he ends up wearing lipstick and sporting a red frock.

Jane Campion says she was not sure if Keitel would be interested, because she believes a lot of American actors would have balked at the idea.

However, he "really, really wanted to play it" and to her surprise "the red dress was a favourite".

And to make him feel more comfortable when they were shooting the frock scenes "all the men on the crew wore a dress too, in solidarity with Harvey".

Undercurrent of feminism

[ image: Opposites attract: Keitel and Winslet]
Opposites attract: Keitel and Winslet
Harvey Keitel is a powerful actor and Jane Campion says one of the reasons why she cast Winslet is because she wanted to have someone equally strong opposite him.

The director admits Winslet even intimidated Keitel in an audition, which worked well for the part, because the relationship between the two on-screen is a power struggle in which the young woman turns the tables on the older man and gets the upper hand.

There is an undercurrent of feminism in the film. Campion says: "I was interested in looking at the older man-younger girl (relationship) and wanting to give the girl a voice in this issue."

[ image: Winslet hit the big time in Titanic]
Winslet hit the big time in Titanic
Holy Smoke does not just deal with the nature of older man-younger girl relationships, it also examines people's quest for a spiritual life, and the threat that an all consuming religious belief can pose to others.

The film's big ideas are both its strength and weakness. It is engaging to watch and raises all kinds of questions, but at times it feels like the characters lose credibility as they play out roles to match the film's themes.

Polarised reaction

Reaction to the film is polarised. People seem to love it or hate it, a response which even the director confirms.

Nearly everyone agrees that it is beautifully shot, and Winslet is being applauded for her work.

Following the success of Titanic, the actress could have easily opted for crass, commercial projects.

But instead she has decided to take on much more demanding roles which have served her well by proving beyond any doubt that she possesses remarkable skills as an actress.

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