The young mother of two in the recent A Walk on the Moon followed the secret leading of her hippie-chick heart only as far as the nearby Woodstock festival in 1969 before reluctantly returning to the safety of home and hearth. Julia (Kate Winslet), a married-too-early single mom cast off by her poet husband, in "Hideous Kinky" takes a decidedly larger risk than her American counterpart, abandoning London in 1972 and dragging two daughters along on a spiritual quest to exotic, often frightening Morocco.
"Hideous Kinky," an awkwardly titled account of that journey based on an autobiographical novel by Esther Freud (her great-grandfather was Sigmund), at least makes for an intermittently absorbing travelogue, with some of the era's most memorable tunes -- by Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- tacked on to a reassuringly familiar soundtrack.
Julia, sober-minded Bea (Bella Riza), age 8, and adventurous Lucy (Carrie Mullan), 6, delightedly take in an array of exotic sights and sounds during their initial stay in Marrakech. Brightly colored fabrics, including a caftan that nicely matches Titanic survivor Winslet's sun-tanned skin and flowing brown hair, are on display in a dusty market teeming with wizened traders, noisily bantering customers and animated street performers.
It's the ideal place to drop out, aside from the relentless heat, the stifling crowds, the poor sanitary conditions and locals who are less than friendly. Julia's deepest desire, as she expresses with frighteningly single-minded conviction in the face of the difficulties being imposed on her children, is to tune out Western social ills and tune into Sufi philosophy, to pursue "the annihilation of the ego and the death of the body."
Her quest is ridiculed by Moroccans and foreigners alike, all of whom variously encourage the trio to take the next train out of there. Bea, unlike her misguided mother, senses the desperation and aimlessness at the heart of their journey. "I don't need another adventure, mom," she pleads. "I have to go to school. I have to learn things." Free-form living is great, she seems to be saying, but what's it worth if there's no structure to rebel against?
Julia nevertheless persists, and it's to Winslet's credit as an actor -- her expressive, convincing delivery of sometimes dippy dialogue -- that she elicits sympathy for a misguided character who subjects her children to all kinds of real and potential hazards. Winslet, remember, might easily have followed that megaton blockbuster with an inconsequential role as the worried wife of a beefy hero in a high-voltage action thriller. "Hideous Kinky," while decidedly flawed, offers a meatier role.
The narrative, loosely and rather conventionally assembled by director Gillies MacKinnon, has our anti-heroine negotiating a series of obstacles on a road she hopes will lead to spiritual fulfillment. A sensual relationship with kind-hearted street acrobat Bilal (Saïd Taghmaoui) ends in disappointment; their money runs out; Bea slips away with grave consequences.
Bilal eventually saves the day, making a dangerous sacrifice in order to provide three tickets to London for the little family. Too bad he couldn't work a similar miracle for "Hideous Kinky," which makes an intriguing start before taking a wearying path to a conclusion that might have been predicted from the first frame.