How do you follow up the most successful film of all time? If you're "Titanic" star Kate Winslet, you return to making the distinctive, venturesome small films that established your career. Indeed, "Hideous Kinky" is the riskiest picture Winslet has made since "Heavenly Creatures," the surreal New Zealand feature about real-life teen killers, which first brought her international acclaim in 1994.
Winslet plays Julia, a 25-year-old woman who has fled to Marrakech, Morocco, from London, where her lover, a famous, trendy writer-poet, has moved on to more women (and more children). The time is 1972, and Julia, a creature of the '60s, craves new experiences, a fresh start and inner peace.
She is determined not to be daunted by her lack of funds, severely limited means of employment and decidedly erratic child support payments from her ex-lover. Julia is a lovely, intelligent woman, brave and open to life, but her financial situation is perilous in the utmost.
Then along comes Bilal (Said Taghmaoui), a wiry, exuberant acrobatic street performer who quickly wins the hearts of Julia and her girls, serious, wise-beyond-her-eight-years Bea (Bella Riza) and Lucy (Carrie Mullan), an adorable 6-year-old. Bilal moves in with Julia and her daughters in the Hotel Moulay, the epitome of picturesque poverty though in reality a tenement popular with local prostitutes. Bilal takes a brutal job in a rock quarry, but soon the lovers and the kids are off on a series of adventures.
"Hideous Kinky" was directed by Gillies MacKinnon, a Scotsman with an idiosyncratic filmography that includes "The Playboys," "A Simple Twist of Fate" (a reworking of "Silas Marner" with Steve Martin), "Small Faces," "Trojan Eddie" and "Regeneration," every one of them dealing with unconventional or marginalized lives. This film was adapted by MacKinnon's brother, Billy, from Esther Freud's acclaimed 1992 semi-autobiographical novel. (Freud is the daughter of painter Lucian and great-granddaughter of Sigmund.)
Lucy was Freud's alter ego, and she has explained that she and her older sister loved the word "hideous" and that it and "kinky" were favorites of a friend of her mother. "To us, the words meant anything beautiful, absurd or frightening," wrote Freud in her novel, and that pretty well describes this film and Julia's odyssey.
By and large the film establishes a tone of adventure recollected with humor and high spirits, but as it progresses it does not soft-pedal the fact that Julia gets herself and her daughters into one potentially disastrous situation after another. The girls are pretty good-natured, all things considered, though Bea is not afraid to speak out and question her mother's judgment. You sympathize entirely with Bea when she says, "I want to go to school, I don't want another adventure." Yet there is some truth to Julia's belief that living on the edge in Morocco beats working 14 hours a day in London "with nothing to show for it" and the girls watching too much TV.
The role of Julia allows Winslet a wide range, for this woman is endearing and exasperating, heroic and foolish, often all at the same time but ever-admirable for the value she places on self-knowledge. Winslet's co-stars are equal to her in well-written roles.
With its authentic locales, "Hideous Kinky," photographed by John de Borman, is gorgeous and exotic. Romantic and blithe in spirit, "Hideous Kinky" arguably rambles too much for its own good. Just like its heroine.
* MPAA-rated: R, for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations, some nudity.
Kate Winslet: Julia
Said Taghmaoui: Bilal
Bella Riza: Bea
Carrie Mullan: Lucy
A Stratosphere Entertainment presentation. Director Gillies MacKinnon. Producer Ann Scott. Executive producers Simon Relph, Mark Shivas. Screenplay by Billy MacKinnon; from the novel by Esther Freud. Cinematographer John de Borman. Editor Pia Di Ciaula. Music John Keane. Costumes Kate Carin. Production designers Louise Marzaroli, Pierre Compertz. Art director Jon Henson. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.