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The Boston Phoenix Marrakesh Distress

Mother knows least in Hideous Kinky

By Peter Keough

APRIL 26, 1999:  Lost innocence is tough to recover, especially that of another time. Scottish filmmaker Gillies MacKinnon is better than most at doing so without sentimentality or cynicism. His autobiographical Small Faces captured the shattering of adolescence in that quintessentially adolescent year, 1968. Less successful was Regeneration, his attempt to come to grips with the broken ideals of the generation lost to World War I. He's back in form with the unfortunately titled Hideous Kinky, a tale of the search for truth and happiness and related illusions and untidiness set in the post-Crosby-Stills-and-Nash wonderland of Marrakesh in 1972.

What distinguishes this Cambellian quest from most of its sort is that the hero is not only a woman but a mother with two very forthright young daughters. Lost in a nightmare of labyrinthine alleys and marketplace horrors reminiscent of The Sheltering Sky, Julia (Kate Winslet in a performance marking her as one of the screen's most vivid presences) awakes to find herself in a cheap Moroccan hotel room with her easy-going six-year-old, Lucy (Carrie Mullan), asking her whether it's Christmas yet. It is indeed, and as they go through the presents -- truffle paste, tickets to a London concert -- sent by Julia's estranged lover, dour eight-year-old Bea (Bella Riza) announces bitterly, "It's the wrong parcel." They were intended for their dad's other children with another estranged lover. Shrewd for her years, Bea suspects that the intermittent checks her mother receives from London might no longer be forthcoming.

So begins the trio's fitful journey, the scene setting a tone of the exotic and the commonplace, of the hallucinatory and the banal, of clarity and chaos. Julia's girls (the two young actors are outstanding in what's been a good year for kid performers) seem in some ways more mature than she is. The younger Lucy is more open to their eldritch, often uncouth circumstances, Bea is more of a worrier, and both are alternately bemused and annoyed at their mother's careless idealism and her dream of making a pilgrimage to a Sufi sheikh in a monastery in Algeria.

The sheikh never really materializes, but in lieu of him there is Bilal (Pedro Martinez look-alike Saïd Taghmaoui), a street performer they first spot standing on his head and prophesizing with crude irreverence. He's a lot more fun than any sheikh might have been as he joins the ménage as lover, playmate, and surrogate dad. But he proves not much more responsible than the kids' actual father, taking everyone for a trip to his native village where they meet his family -- including his wife. His tears on their departure are one of Kinky's unexpected emotional epiphanies.

Given such adult childishness, the children have to pick up the slack, and though Winslet and Taghmaoui seize the screen, it's through the eyes of Lucy and Bea that we see the redolent, rococo splendor of their surroundings (the film is adapted from a novel by Esther Freud about her childhood in Morocco under similar circumstances). And it's the girls' enthusiasm -- few movies evoke the childish imagination as accurately as this one, with its bedtime stories about lonely carpets and "the Black Hand" -- that gets chastened: they realize that it's all fun and games until the money is gone, and that adults have less of a clue about what's going on than they do.

This is particularly true of Bea, who when asked by Lucy what she wants to be when she grows up says, "Normal." Her patience runs out once Bilal does (the dynamics among the three girls and the benighted, beguiling male is one of Kinky's many subtle pleasures), and when her mother threatens to head out on another expedition to see the sheikh, abandoning the cushy lodgings they've secured in the palace of a friendly European acquaintance, she balks. No more Arabian Nights for her -- she wants to go to school, and taking the part of a diminutive voice of reason, she assures her mother that she will be there when and if mom comes to her senses.

That sets in motion a melodramatic turn for the worse, as Kinky drops its sometimes confusing but generally true-to-life formlessness for that hoary device, the endangered-child scenario. At a certain point, too, Julia passes from stubborn idealism to criminal negligence, and a scene in which she redeems herself in a confrontation with a bluenose in an orphanage seems not altogether deserved. But this is a film about the luxury of being non-judgmental, of spiritual generosity before it's shrunken by diminished expectations. Hideous Kinky recovers that fragile state of mind and vindicates its innocence.

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