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Kate Winslet stars in the screen version of Esther Freud’s popular novel, Hideous Kinky, playing the mother who takes her two young daughters to live in Morocco, an exotic and vibrant alternative to cold London. But the film is more than travelogue, as Winslet explains.

One miserable British winter towards the end of the sixties, Bernadine Freud decided she had had enough of living in a one-bedroom flat in South London. It was cold, damp, cramped and loveless: no place for a single mother with two young children. The music and the philosophies which had made sixties London an exciting place to live were already beginning to go out of style. But the effect they had had on young women like Bernadine - who was in her mid-20s at the time - were still very real.

"a recreation of the whole experience through the eyes of the child.."

So, with Christmas approaching, Bernadine Freud packed her things, gathered up her two young daughters and headed, like a lot of other young Britons, for Morocco. Twenty years later, one of her daughters would recreate the events of those 18 months spent in North Africa - a period which was both magical and terrifying, wondrous and disastrous - into a unique and wonderful novel called Hideous Kinky.

It wasn’t an account of her travels with her mother; it wasn’t even really autobiographical. It was more a recreation of the whole experience through the eyes of the child she then was. "It’s a very English story," says producer Ann Scott, who optioned the novel in 1993, "even though it all takes place in Morocco. It’s a particular chapter in English social history, when young people - for the first time, really - could just take off to remote places where life seemed colourful and exotic."

"It was very exciting - the colour, the sunshine, the music."

The same qualities presumably attracted Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon. He made the trip a few years later, spending six months travelling in North Africa. "Everybody came to Morocco then," he says. "It was very exciting - the colour, the sunshine, the music. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills and Nash - they all turned up around then."

And their music is in the film (though not always the tracks you expect, which is one of the quiet little joys of watching it). But Hideous Kinky is anything but a travelogue. Thrown into this fascinating but potentially threatening culture, the girls invent a series of fantasies to try and make sense of what is happening to them, a process which is both funny and (in the case of the ‘Black Hand’ invented by Lucy, the youngest) quite frightening.

And their mother - Julia in the film, played with great warmth and courage by Kate Winslet, showing depths that Titanic hardly hinted at - finds out things about herself and about what it means to be a mother that are still part of modern experience.

"it appeals to the child in all of us." Kate Winslet

The actress was actually given Freud’s novel as a Christmas present when she was in her early teens. "I could really relate to it," says Winslet, who recommended the book to all her friends. "Told from the child’s point of view, it appeals to the child in all of us." But, when she came to work on the role of Julia, she began to find dimensions she hadn’t seen as a teenager.

"She has the attitude that I hope I would have with my own children," says Winslet, who insisted on joining the production team on an early location-scouting trip to Morocco to get a feel for the place. "Against all the odds, she seizes the moment and has a go. She has the courage to introduce her children to a world beyond their own doorstep and let them be who they are. But Julia is not a feckless, drug-taking hippie: she’s a wholesome, responsible, grounded mother who in the end gives up her new life because her children need something different."

"It’s the constant conflict of modern motherhood," producer Ann Scott

"It’s the constant conflict of modern motherhood," adds Scott. "How can you be adventurous and carry the responsibility for children at the same time? In the film, Julia tries very hard to do her best for them all. But, when she overestimates what her children can handle, the whole thing starts to unravel. Then she recognises the choices to be made and the time to move on."

The director’s brother, Billy, who wrote Small Faces for Gillies and was script editor on Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or-winner, The Piano, made this one of the focuses of his adaptation of Freud’s novel. "It’s a great book," he says, "full of colourful people and incidents, but a screenplay needs to be more focused. Adapting a novel is like taking a car apart in your bedroom and putting it back together again as a motorbike. You can still travel the same roads, but the engine is different, so there’s a different feeling to the journey."

In narrative terms, MacKinnon has focused on Julia’s evolving relationship with her children, and on the development of the children themselves. Six-year-old Lucy (Carrie Mullan) retains her sense of wonder at the new world in which she finds herself, and develops an especially strong bond with Bilal, the young Moroccan who becomes Julia’s lover and whom Lucy decides is her new father. Eight-year-old Bea (Bella Riza), however, is beginning to feel the need to be more normal, more ordinary, more like other girls. She insists that Julia buy her a white shirt, a white skirt and a satchel so that she can go to school. And, when her mother heads off into the mountains to see the Sufi Sheik and learn about the annihilation of the self, Bea stays behind with what appears to be a ‘normal’ couple: Santoni, the middle-aged Frenchman (played by sixties icon Pierre Clémenti, who starred opposite Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel’s Belle de jour) and his English girlfriend, Charlotte (Abigail Cruttenden). But they prove even less reliable than Julia and, by the time the latter gets back from the mountains, her ‘self’ still very much intact, Bea is ensconced in a orphanage with a religious zealot called Patricia (Michelle Fairley) where normality is achieved at the price of total loss of individuality.

It proves the beginning of the end for Julia. Shortly afterwards, Bea gets ill and, unable to afford the medical attention they need, they decide to go home.

"a bird without wings who watches others fly." actor Saïd Taghmaoui

The other aspect of Freud’s novel on which the MacKinnon brothers have chosen to focus is Julia’s relationship with Bilal, engagingly played (in his first English-language role) by Paris-based Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui, who co-wrote and starred in Mathieu Kassowitz’s multi-award-winning movie, La haine. Bilal falls in love with the family as a whole. But, like them, he finds it hard to escape from his own history. "Both Julia and Bilal have problems which drive them apart and bring them back together again," says Billy. "He’s also a dreamer," adds Taghmaoui, "a bird without wings who watches others fly."

The extraordinary thing about Hideous Kinky is the naturalness with which this relationship is treated: there is no sense of Julia being attracted to Bilal because of his exotic otherness, or of Bilal being overly concerned with Julia’s English wealth (he quickly accepts she is broke). As with Small Faces and Trojan Eddie, MacKinnon creates a world too vibrant for us to want to make moral judgements about its inhabitants: watching them is too much fun. There is enormous fun to be had, too, from watching the two children, from whom MacKinnon has elicited strikingly natural performances.

"some stunningly beautiful settings"

"To me," declares Winslet, "the star of the film is the family group with Bilal. But," she adds, "the Marrakech locations are Best Supporting Actor!" And indeed, for all its determination not to be a travelogue, Hideous Kinky features some stunningly beautiful settings, perfectly captured by director of photography John de Borman, who shot both Small Faces and Trojan Eddie. Bringing a care and attention to the lighting even in the smallest of interior scenes, de Borman completes the magic of Hideous Kinky. Watch out for a moment near the end, during the visit to the Sufi college, where Lucy sits in a doorway trying to wind a red turban around her head, apparently oblivious to the camera.

"There is a big film industry in Morocco," says Taghmaoui, paying tribute to the way the MacKinnons and de Borman have captured an image of his native land, "but productions usually use the locations as a backdrop for somewhere else, like Israel or Egypt. Martin Scorsese even made a film about the Dalai Lama here, using the mountains and desert of South Morocco as Tibet! So everyone is delighted to have worked on a film actually set in Morocco!"

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