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Heartfelt Kinky

By Ray Pride

APRIL 26, 1999:  An intoxicating sense of place, a romance, an adventure, a journey that one shares with one's children: Kate Winslet is only the luminous center of Gillies MacKinnon's delectable, sensuous "Hideous Kinky."

Winslet is Julia, leaving cold London and a negligent poet husband behind to seek enlightenment in 1972 Morocco for herself and two daughters, Lucy, 6 (Carrie Mullan) and Bea, 8 (Bella Riza). Awash in sensation, the children show mismatched levels of curiosity and intelligence, and their performances are both telling and brilliantly individuated. (While based on Esther Freud's fine, fact-based novel, the title refers to a nonsense phrase Lucy and Bea shriek at their moments of greatest exhilaration.)

The children don't care for this hippie paradise all the time, yet MacKinnon and his collaborators, including his fine cinematographer John de Borman, use all the tools of cinema, the power of sight and sound and motion and music, to overwhelm an audience with the tactile moments that comprise the journey of Julia, Lucy and Bea. (It's the kind of storytelling that transcends the literary, literature-bound notions that movies must provide reams of plot and streams of dialogue.) Anything could happen, including a romance for Julia with street performer Bilal (wry, lithe Saïd Taghmaoui). "Hideous Kinky" is so much more than travelogue, and its daunting intelligence and effervescent sense of time and place are rare treasures.

With eight other features in the past decade, which include "Small Faces" and "Regeneration," MacKinnon has managed to follow his own concerns, not rising to critical acclaim yet making sturdy, immaculately-crafted work that will stand the test of time. MacKinnon didn't always intend to be a filmmaker, working for years as a newspaper and magazine cartoonist, supporting his family, and eventually, film school in his native Scotland. The lush tapestry of "Hideous Kinky" doesn't shout its themes or morals, and while some reviewers have complained of Julia not being sufficiently judged, it seems less a reflection of the movie than themselves. "In 'Hideous Kinky,' it's a wonderful experience in a way for these children," the fervent talker told me at Sundance in his lovely, rhythmic Scots accent. Of the Freud sisters, he says, "Now they're grown up and are incredibly loyal to their mother. They've both become very substantial people. Yet there's always a danger in the true adventure. There's a lot of ways to answer, what is [the movie] about?" He sketches in his own travels in Africa in the seventies, traveling in the desert with nomads, knowing the Marrakech of 1972. With "Hideous Kinky," he says, "There's also the question of parenthood. I have two children [now] and you ask yourself, y'know, was I too cautious? Could I have been a little more adventurous? Could I have shown them something more?"

There is one character who says, after a trying episode where she hasn't been totally responsible, "Isn't it time to take them home, Julia?" MacKinnon doesn't pause for a breath: "I ask myself this question as a parent. I always wanted to get a van and go down to the Sahara with my kids when they were little. I think the reason it never happened was I was always broke! I could never afford such a journey, take time off from work. I would have liked to have done that, to be honest, I'd love to have shown them something of the world. The tendency with parents today is to protect children. They go around to each other's houses and watch videos. I think that the world is beginning to just be plugged into the electronic world. Just to teach adventure, the sense of adventure, the hunger for adventure, the passion to live, y'know? That's what the film is about."

There was a dull commonplace among some journalists at Sundance, "Oh I liked the film, but it was just a travelogue." MacKinnon doesn't care for that one bit. "The word travelogue, to me, is a very offensive description of the film. I think it's a journey and 'travelogue' is a demeaning, passive description of it. What I was trying to achieve was the feeling that you get if you've ever traveled. Maybe you have to travel for long periods to get this feeling, the idea that somebody comes into your life and that person can be very influential, or not. But you know that tomorrow you leave them. That's one of the qualities of it, it's an unfolding experience. The travelogue element is also a very false description as well because there's almost nothing in the film that was there before we came. We built the entire Medina [market] from nothing. We went from an empty square, we brought everybody from the existing Medina that we wanted in busloads with all their things, then reconstructed it entirely. Almost everything in the film has been built or renovated or brought in. Somebody said, 'Did you just point the camera and shoot there?' I thought, I have to take this as a compliment."

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