Hideous Kinky

Dir: Gillies MacKinnon, 1998. Starring: Kate Winslet, Said Taghmaoui, Bella Riza, Carrie Mullen. Drama.
Hideous Kinky

Let me just lay it out there: not only is Kate Winslet the best actress of her generation, she’s probably reached all time top ten for me. After some British TV work she burst in to movies while still a teenager with her haunting performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and then established herself as a major young adult actress with her wonderful work as Lucy in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Winslet then capped off this early period of art house auteurs with Michael Winterbottom’s adaption of another victorian novel Jude the Obscure (shortened to just Jude for the screen) and the best on-camera interpretation of the role of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Hamlet. And then her career exploded with the cultural and box office goliath Titanic making her a giant international star. But she did an interesting thing; she didn’t chase the money, and (until recently) she mostly stuck to smaller character driven films, never again working with another A-list brand name director like James Cameron or even Lee. (With smaller exceptions being Nancy Meyers, Michel Gondry and Jane Campion, while directors like Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski were well past their primes. She only had a small role as part of a large ensemble in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.)

With Hideous Kinky in ’98, (Winslet’s first post-Titanic role) she really laid down the gauntlet for the kind of career she would map out for herself: challenging, surprising, anti-star and often unsympathetic. Based on Esther Freud's autobiography about her childhood being raised with her sister by her free-spirited British mother in Morocco, Winslet plays the mom, Julia. Disillusioned by life in stuffy London and with a hippie attitude, in a search for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, she packs her eight and six year-old daughters up for a Middle East quest. The two little girls are played by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullen, and they deliver a pair of outstanding performances. Julia, though loving, is also young and selfish, with only fleeting concern for her children’s needs for stability. The girls actually want to go to school, but Mom keeps whisking them off on busses across the desert landscape to romance her Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (the charismatic Said Taghmaoui), who also seems to be a lost soul, unwilling to live up to his community's expectations. It’s never fully clear if Julia is truly spiritual (her enthusiasm usually feels naive) or if it’s all a pose to rebel against her family and the girls’s father, a London poet. (The question of their marriage is also blurry.) The film provides an insightful and fascinating look at Moroccan city life; this, of course, is before the full-blown Islamic revolutions would make Westerners a little less comfortable being strangers in a strange land.

Like Julia herself, the film has a freeform structure. It moves to its own whims like a number of short stories cobbled together, similar to The Virgin Suicides. What holds each episode in place is our discomfort in seeing Julia lead her girls into worse and worse situations for her own selfish needs, even leaving a daughter behind in a Christian orphanage at one point. Like the existentialist white travelers in North Africa in Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky or Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, this has become a mystical landscape for the lost Westerner. Director Gillies MacKinnon (whom I actually worked with on his earlier film, A Simple Twist of Fate) casually asks the viewer to fill in some of the blanks--it’s a risk, but it works. What you end up with in Hideous Kinky is a moving mother-daughters drama, or at the very least, a stunning travelogue with the sounds of Woodstock vets Crosby, Still & Nash, Richie Havens and Jefferson Airplane. A fascinating backdrop, all used to frame Kate Winslet’s beautiful face.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 15, 2015 11:20am
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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