Hideous Kinky

(Gillies MacKinnon, UK/France, 1999)


One of the simplest pleasures afforded by watching movies in theatres generally goes unheralded: the opportunity to hear some favourite music selections – incidentally lending momentary vitality to a film’s images – pumped through a glorious speaker system.

When Crosby, Stills & Nash started singing “You Don’t Have to Cry” on the soundtrack of Hideous Kinky, my toe started tapping and my heart leapt for joy. Mind you, my happiness had something to do with the fact that the arrival of this song meant the film itself was finally over.

This is a meandering, indifferent movie. Based on an autobiographical novel by Esther Freud, it tells the story of a hippie mother, Julia (Kate Winslet), who flees a bad marriage and takes her kids, Bea (Bella Riza) and Lucy (Carrie Mullan), to Marrakech in the 1970s.

There they experience poverty and serendipity more than spiritual enlightenment. Nonetheless, the group hooks up with Bilal (Said Taghmaoui), a travelling player with a heart of gold.

It is hard to get a grip on what this movie is meant to be about. The team of director Gillies MacKinnon and writer Billy MacKinnon (Small Faces, 1995) unwisely split the focus of the story. Sometimes it concentrates on the pathos of Julia’s situation, at other moments on the plight of the children trying to cope with an adventure to which they never agreed. The romance and intrigue surrounding Bilal become almost peripheral matters, afterthoughts.

There is no shape to the flow of characters, moods and incidents; the MacKinnons have yet to master the craft on display in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), which expertly guides us through a similarly dispersed and multiple mosaic.

Winslet is a very appealing performer in a surprisingly adult role, but neither she nor we seem to ever get under the skin of the driven and confused Julia.

Although the film is pleasant to look at, and the pop songs from the era are well used – and despite the touching presence of Pierre Clémenti in one of his final screen appearances – the human drama drains away, as in Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda (1997).

The filmmakers try a bit of everything: nightmare flashes in the vein of a psychological horror movie; intimations of the scary Otherness of a non-Anglo culture, recalling Bernardo Bertolucci’s rendering of The Sheltering Sky (1990).

Finally, it amounts to a glorified travelogue, with a little human misery and perplexity thrown in for good measure. The end result is quite unsatisfying.

© Adrian Martin February 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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