Road to nowhere

Despite Kate Winslet's enlightening performance, "Hideous Kinky" is a mess.


Charles Taylor
April 16, 1999 8:02PM (UTC)

In "Hideous Kinky," his film of the Esther Freud novel, director Gillies
MacKinnon goes for something like an open-ended approach to the
picaresque material. But his method is to ladle on the exotic Marrakech
atmosphere (North African music, point-of-view shots of a chaotic
marketplace) and to chop off each scene before the actors have a chance to
get a rhythm going -- or before the dramatic point of the scene becomes clear.
From moment to moment, I had no trouble figuring out what was
happening in "Hideous Kinky," but I'm damned if I could figure out why.

An open-ended style is suited to the story of Julia (Kate Winslet), an English
hippie mother who takes her two young daughters to Morocco looking for
a better life than the one they've left behind in London, but who doesn't
give much thought to practicalities. But MacKinnon has never been an
especially adept storyteller, and the tone of his films always feels a little
flabby and undefined. In short, he isn't disciplined enough in basics to be
able to veer off from them in the style of picaresque narrative.

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His attempts
to reproduce the nonjudgmental curiosity of Freud's novel are
especially muddled. There's a lilting, unhurried quality to Freud's prose.
Narrated by Julia's 5-year-old daughter Lucy, played here by Carrie
Mullan, the book finds its voice in a child's
acceptance of whatever life happens to be. If that voice doesn't pass
judgment, it also proves to be shrewdly revealing -- we know that a
5-year-old girl can't possibly apprehend her mother's shortcomings. MacKinnon, whose brother Billy adapted the novel, wants the film both to have that same lack of judgment and to be honest about Julia's failings. But
there's no particular exuberance to the filmmaking, no sense of adventure, nothing to make us feel Julia's bravery as strongly as we're made to feel her irresponsibility. Only in stray moments does Julia's hippie freedom come
through, as when Lucy stumbles upon Julia and her lover Bilal (Saod
Taghmaoui) in bed and Julia greets the girl with "Where did you spring from?"
and draws her into an embrace. There's never a moment's doubt that this woman loves her daughters; and there's never a moment's doubt that all
her prattle -- about how the West has lost its chance for spirituality and the
only thing awaiting her girls in London would be a shallow empty life -- is
the most naive sort of romanticism.

It's not that the movie's view of Julia is
inaccurate. (She's as much an escapist as every old hippie, all those people
who are still babbling about the search for enlightenment at 50.) It's that
a movie has to take a more generous view of its heroine, even a foolish one.
The movie never finds a way to love all of Julia -- her foolishness as well as her
fierce love for her daughters.

And so, 7-year-old Bea (Bella Riza) becomes the dominant character.
Bea, who says her ambition is to be normal, has acquired the kid's skill of
knowing just which of her mother's buttons to push to induce guilt. Her
manner can be awfully grand, but it's hard to dismiss what she says because
she seems like the only character possessed of common sense. Like Mullan, the plump-cheeked little charmer who plays her sister, Riza is
making her film debut here. Both girls give natural, unaffected
performances (though Riza is saddled with an unconvincing bit of
melancholy at the prospect of leaving Morocco), and their bond with Winslet seems believable.

Winslet suffers from the movie's inability to give a fuller picture of Julia,
and in some ways she just seems too grounded, too sensible to carry off the
character's flightiness. But she works her way into Julia physically, setting
her bare feet flatly on the earth as if to bring herself a stronger connection
with it. There's something about her round, open features that calls up
every hippie chick who ever stopped you dead in your tracks. What's
unsatisfying about the performance has less to do with Winslet than with
the people she's working for. If anything, she seems to be exhibiting a new
confidence in her acting. And even though the movie is a mess, Winslet's
choosing "Hideous Kinky" as the follow-up to "Titanic" turns out to be a
canny choice, a conscious decision to scrape off the faux glamour of
James Cameron's mega-production (even though she was just about the only
believably human thing in it). Appearing flushed, sunburned and sweaty
and outfitted in a series of caftans isn't what most actors would do to follow
up the most successful movie of all time. I don't mean that to sound like
some PC swipe at movie glamour, or part of that dumb mind-set that
suggests a woman deserves to be taken seriously as an actor when she wipes
off the makeup. In Winslet's case it just seems a necessary move to elude a
velvet trap, a move toward breathing space.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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