We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

You can tell Hideous Kinky is an art film because they didn’t change the title. Sure, it’s also the title of the semi-autobiographical Esther Freud novel from which Billy MacKinnon adapted his script, but the potential for confusion is so great that any half-decent studio marketing department would have jettisoned that name before the first test screening. Even in France, where art more often trumps commerce, the title was switched to the blander but less perplexing Marrakech Express.

For the record, Hideous Kinky is not an S&M flick. “Hideous” and “kinky” are the two favorite words of 5-year-old Lucy (Carrie Mullan) and 7-year-old Bea (Bella Riza), two British girls who bewilderingly find themselves in early-’70s Morocco. That’s where their mother, Julia (Kate Winslet), has traveled to be closer to enlightenment and farther from the girls’ father, a well-known London poet who’s lost interest in her. The words are treasured for their sound, not their meaning, as is apt: The novel is narrated by Lucy, who frequently doesn’t quite know what’s going on. This ignorance prevents her from realizing that her mother is clueless, too. The older, more knowing Bea is the most lucid about the trio’s situation, and she frequently doesn’t approve.

To a proper English matron in miniature like Bea, Julia’s vague quest offers much basis for disapproval. In addition to dragging two young daughters to Morocco without any reliable source of income, Julia takes up with a charming but mysterious man who’s probably married and almost certainly wanted by the police (Saïd Taghmaoui, who played one of three suburban-Paris no-hopers in Hate). The English threesome lives in a seedy hotel also occupied by languorous prostitutes who matter-of-factly appropriate Julia’s clothes. (Mom embarrasses her daughters by getting into a violent tussle over a pair of pink pants.) Deciding that she’s meant to be a Sufi, Julia impulsively drags Lucy on a dangerous quest to Algeria, hitchhiking with an LSD-addled German. Bea refuses to go on this trip, and it’s Bea’s increasing refusal to accept her mother’s antics—along with a medical emergency—that ultimately makes Julia reassess the threesome’s tenure in Morocco.

For their sympathetic if not always literal adaptation of Freud’s novel, the screenwriter and his brother, director Gillies MacKinnon, have been accused of sanitizing the novel or even of betraying the spirit of the hippie era. Such judgments seem unduly harsh. The movie does eliminate a bit of pot smoking and hash eating (as well as bed-wetting), but most of what the MacKinnons have done is merely to simplify. Revealing its basis in actual experience, Freud’s novel depicts many minor characters who drift into the lives of Julia and the girls and then disappear forever. The film eliminates some of these players (including the one who taught the girls the title words) and combines others, tidying up the story. Still, Hideous Kinky is certainly not as schematic as Winslet’s last film.

Atoning for the mechanical Titanic, a movie whose dialogue could hardly have been improved by actorly interpretation, Winslet immerses herself in the role of Julia. Whether expressing joy, fear, or disillusionment, her fervent performance keeps pace with the film’s twin pillars of energy: John de Borman’s energetic camerawork and the delirious bustle of Marrakech’s plazas and markets. Shot in wide-screen to effect more of a sense of enveloping foreignness, the film is vivid and pungent. It simultaneously conjures the exhilaration and apprehension of being thrust into an overwhelming alien culture.

What’s lost, inevitably, is the sense of Lucy’s point of view; it’s a rare movie that effectively translates a novelist’s interior monologues to the screen. In compensation, the film offers one of the better cinematic evocations of the first psychedelic era, enhanced by a well-chosen selection of psychedelic folk rock: Donovan, the Jefferson Airplane, Nick Drake, Richie Havens, the Incredible String Band, and, of course, Crosby, Stills, and Nash (although not that song). The only musical distraction is America’s “A Horse With No Name,” a song that is apparently less of a laughingstock in Britain than in the U.S.

In a sense, the film ends in defeat. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Julia does not become a Sufi (although the remarkable scene in which she realizes she won’t is best left undescribed). If the movie’s conclusion is a little sweeter than the book’s, it’s hardly one of those Hollywood resolutions that sends everyone scuttling back to her proper place in the suburban middle class. Julia and the girls may leave Marrakech, but that ending doesn’t suppose that Julia’s questing is over. And the fact that Hideous Kinky is set in 1972 certainly doesn’t mean that the MacKinnons think that’s the year that marks the end of the age of affluent Westerners’ self-indulgence.CP