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Metro Pulse Post-Titanic Kinkiness

Kate Winslet falls off the boat into a mature, intelligent performance.

By Zak Weisfeld

JUNE 14, 1999:  Hideous Kinky may be the most unfortunately named film of the decade. It is a title provocative enough to turn away the softer indie filmgoer—and it is a movie guaranteed to disappoint those for whom the title conjures images of an acid-scarred Kate Winslet in a leather corset and thigh-high boots.

Even more perplexing, the title has nothing whatsoever to do with the film, which is neither hideous nor kinky. In fact, for those of you not British, not familiar with the novel of the same name upon which the film is based, and not in possession of the press kit, there is probably no way to know that hideous and kinky are the two favorite words of the two young girls in the film. To them the words, "meant anything beautiful, absurd, or frightening," as the press kit so helpfully explains. Which is good to know since, at least as defined by the children, Hideous Kinky is a fairly accurate thumbnail sketch of the movie.

The opening scene is of a young girl on a train explaining, very briefly, why she and her mother have come to Morocco. It is something to do with missing cats and fallen bathroom ceilings. In the next instant a different young girl is racing through a Moroccan souk. We get bloody goat heads, wild music, twisting corridors, and veiled faces and then Julia (Winslet, as the girls' mother) awakens from her dream, lying on a low pallet in a sparse room in Morocco. And there you have it: beautiful, absurd, and frightening all in the first 30 seconds of the film.

Julia is a seeker. Divorced from her English poet husband, she's brought her children to Morocco ostensibly for the reasons stated by her daughter Bea, i.e., the cats and the ceiling. But mostly Julia's come to find enlightenment at the hands of the Sufis, a mystical Islamic sect. At this point it would be helpful to explain that Hideous Kinky is set in 1972, when this sort of thing was, if not all the rage, then at least plausible.

Julia, a young mother, is a bazaar of conflicting emotions—selfishness, love, hope, and despair; Winslet wears them all, not just on her face but her body. It's a moving performance and one that doesn't shy away from the difficulties and contradictions that live side by side in the character.

I suppose it must also be mentioned that this is Kate Winslet's first movie since Titanic. Winslet has grown up a lot since her bridal trousseau went down on the good ship to the tune of over a billion dollars in movie tickets. She has put her coy, corseted, bridal days away. Leonardo may still be playing a boy, but Winslet has crossed the Hollywood Rubicon into womanhood. With Hideous Kinky, Winslet has chosen to star in what is almost the anti-Titanic. Short of being shot in black and white and spoken in Arabic, it is hard to imagine a movie more unlike James Cameron's opus. And this is not entirely a good thing.

Titanic was a brilliant exercise in control. James Cameron used all the techniques of block-buster special effects and ruthlessly plotted melodrama to make a three-and-a-half hour movie (where everyone knows the ending) mildly entertaining. On the other hand, Gillies MacKinnon, the director of Hideous Kinky, uses a profound naturalism and wonderfully individual performances to make a 98 minute film (where no one has any idea what's happening) mildly entertaining.

Hideous Kinky is entirely devoted to the uniqueness of its characters and the rich chaos of Morocco—and the pleasures of tightly driven narrative be damned. Even the minor characters in the film are so richly drawn that it's sad not to see more of them, discover who they are. The movie's other main pleasure is Morocco. From the goats' blood of the first scene to the flowing red turban of the last, Hideous Kinky hurls itself into the exotic, desert country. Occasionally MacKinnon manages to submerge the film so deeply in its location that it feels almost like a documentary, as though MacKinnon managed to shoot a movie in the middle of a Moroccan street without telling anyone but the main characters that he was doing it.

The cost of MacKinnon's affection for his characters and his location is that the film moves along fitfully. The photography by John de Borman is lovely, capturing the burnished sepia of the landscape and the rich colors of the costumes, but the editing is jarring. So much of the action, and the interconnections between characters, is simply alluded to that, at times, Hideous Kinky threatens to come apart. With its spiritual quest, its road-movie interludes, its soundtrack, and its plot as loose as a hippie's dress, Hideous Kinky seems not just to be set in 1972, but made then as well.

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