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Hideous Kinky

Despite its title, "Hideous Kinky" is really neither of those things.

Actually, the name of this understated period drama comes from a nonsensical game played by two of its characters. But nonetheless, it's one that doesn't seem particularly fitting for what is essentially a warmhearted, if at-times meandering, character piece.That being said, it's one that also benefits from a typically solid lead performance by "Titanic" star Kate Winslet, as well as some beautiful location photography (mainly in exotic Marrakech and other Moroccan settings).

And it's certainly a cut above other recent productions that have attempted similar subject matter, including the even-more-uneven "Tea with Mussolini."

Based on Esther Freud's semi-autobiographical novel, "Hideous Kinky" follows a twentysomething Brit, Julia (Winslet), who travels to Morocco during the early '70s to look for love and spiritual enlightenment.

Complicating matters is the fact that she has two young daughters, Lucy (Carrie Mullan) and Bea (Bella Riza), along with her on the trip. Together, the three are having a hard time scraping by on sporadic support checks from the girls' neglectful father, as well as the odd jobs Julia takes on.

Though their financial problems don't change, things do start looking up when Julia meets Bilal (Said Taghmaoui), a charismatic street performer who also works in the local mines.

Bilal gives Julia the love and support she's been looking for, and at least one of the girls starts to embrace him as a surrogate father. Unfortunately, they also discover that he has a secret -- one with more than a few parallels with the girls' biological father.

It's not the most groundbreaking material, but it is done in a surprisingly effective, even heartfelt manner. Director Gillies MacKinnon (1994's "A Simple Twist") wisely plays things out in a low-key manner, giving the performers a surprising amount of free rein.

The move paid off handsomely, though. Mullan and Riza give astonishingly good performances, especially considering the fact that this is their first film, while Taghmaoui nicely avoids the "mysterious charmer" stereotype.

But it's still Winslet's show, as the deglamorized actress makes a believable, even compelling "earth mother" protagonist, which helps punctuate an actual message at the end.

"Hideous Kinky" is rated R for male and female nudity, scattered profanity, a violent tussle, brief drug use (marijuana) and brief animal gore.