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'Hideous': More Boring Than Kinky

By Desson Howe Friday, April 23, 1999; Page N50

"HIDEOUS KINKY," Gillies MacKinnon's film about a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her identity-seeking trip to Morocco in the drug-hazy days of the early 1970s, trudges along an all-too-familiar path: the soul-finding trip to an exotic locale.

The movie's based on the novel by Esther Freud, whose mother, Bernadine, took the young Esther and Esther's sister Bella to the North African country in 1967, and stayed for two years, living on paltry checks from Bernadine's lover, the painter Lucian Freud.

I'm sure the experience was real and rewarding for the Freuds. But Kate Winslet doesn't come back with much more than dust in her sandals.

When Westerners take these self-realizing journeys to Africa, Asia or wherever, the cinematographer and art director go to town. We're treated to an almost de rigueur list of old world landmarks: The old men whose silences speak volumes. Those dusty landscapes at sunrise. The crumbling ruins, the mosques, the tents, all emanating a sense of ancient mystery.

But that's only half the experience. These stories are supposed to be about inward odysseys, in which the hero, or heroine, metaphorically heaves out the psychic baggage from back home and downloads the local religion, beliefs and customs.

The movie, which changes the names of the children to Bea (played by Bella Riza) and Lucy (Carrie Mullan) and the mother to Julia, revels in the country's geophysical majesty, and that stoned, Crosby-Stills-Nash mysticism about the place, but gives us a completely elliptical story.

Your eyes are fed with exotic people and locales. And the vicarious smell of kif (the basic cannabis smoked over there) wafts across, but your mind is only partially nourished by the human saga.

Escaping an unsatisfying life in England, which includes an estranged boyfriend and a drab apartment in South London, Julia and her two daughters arrive in Marrakech.

It isn't long before Julia and her girls become enthralled by a street tumbler called Bilal (Said Taghmaoui), who becomes Mom's lover.

"Hideous Kinky" skims from episode to episode, leaving out great chunks of exposition that could have enlightened us. You'd have to read the book, for instance, to know the phrase "hideous kinky" is simply a code phrase between the sisters to mean almost anything they want it to.

Bilal is fascinating and inscrutable, and you have to watch the whole film to see whether he comes through for his adopted family. There is also a somewhat affecting tension between Julia and her daughter Bea, whose dream is not to visit distant cultures but to be normal. But for the most part, we're stuck trying to divine profound meanings from the visual sideshow of landscapes, mosques and camels, as the story shifts from Marrakech to Algeria and back again. If we learn anything from this movie, it would be: When taking a trip to a far-off land, be sure to bring your credit cards. Otherwise you'll be stuck selling your own clothes or translating the work of blind poets.

HIDEOUS KINKY (R, 99 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations and nudity. 

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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