Film: Half-baked in the sun

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The Independent Culture
The Latin poet Horace famously remarked that people who go abroad change only their scenery, not their souls. Two films this week focus upon women who, defying the Horatian dictum, seek out exotic climes in search of self-realisation; one goes to Morocco, the other to Jamaica. To what extent their journeys rate as spiritual successes is unclear, though the tourist boards of the countries they visit will find that of less interest than the lengthy advert each film gives them.

Adapted from Esther Freud's novel, Hideous Kinky recounts the travels, not to say the travails, of Julia (Kate Winslet), a hippie chick who has come to Marrakesh with her two small daughters. She has left behind a failed relationship in London, and donned backpack and sandals in her quest for enlightenment - it's 1972, a date still close enough to the Sixties for such a quest to seem, if not advisable, then at least forgivable. The family settles into picturesque poverty above a courtyard, mucking in with the local prostitutes, sweating lightly beneath mosquito nets and waiting for Julia's ex to wire them cash. In the meantime, Julia scrapes by, making rag dolls and translating poetry for a wizened Berber.

The director Gillies MacKinnon and his screenwriter brother Billy have chosen to adhere pretty faithfully to Freud's novel, in so far as incident is preferred to plot, with a light drizzling of atmosphere and characterisation to brighten the salad. Julia's flakiness is contrasted with the severe good sense of her older daughter Bea, who wants some order in her life: a school uniform would be a start. And while Julia's goal may be regeneration of the spirit, she is not above tending to the demands of the flesh - her involvement with a handsome Arab scoundrel, Bilal (Said Taghmaoui) simmers on a low flame throughout.

Yet as the minutes tick by, a question nags ever more insistently: where's the movie? It can't just be this parched assemblage of half-drawn scenes and fragments, can it? The novel at least risked the formal conceit of a child as narrator, from whose vantage the mother's feckless indulgence could be felt as a genuine source of confusion and resentment. Up on screen, however, it's all about as substantial as a joss stick. The film keeps setting up potential narrative lines - Julia visits a sheikh to ask about becoming a Sufi; Bea is apparently abducted by a Christian orphanage worker; sister Lucy falls violently ill - and abandons them just as they threaten to become interesting. The rest of the time it comes on with the naive enthusiasm of just-returned holidaymakers who insist on offering you first peek at their snaps. Here's the time those prostitutes stole Mum's trousers from the laundry; here's the riverbank where we ate that tuna and threw up; here's us on that trip to Bilal's village... and so, insouciantly, on.

What may halt the slide from drowsiness into somnolence are the performances of the two girls - Bella Riza and Carrie Mullan, take a bow - and the star presence of Kate Winslet, who couldn't have chosen a droughtier film to follow the watery perils of Titanic. The relatively downbeat nature of her role speaks well for Winslet's adventurous side, though she isn't required to project much beyond apple-cheeked discomfort. In truth, there's not much for anybody to do here, so vaguely are character and action delineated. MacKinnon tried this elliptical style of film-making in his last film, Regeneration, an adaptation of Pat Barker's Great War novel that strove to piece together a splintered drama from the psychology of young, battle- damaged officers. The technique fails him in Hideous Kinky, however, because its wispy conflation of family memoir and hippie travelogue never persuades us that anything - psychological, romantic or cultural - is at stake.

Hard to believe, but there's a film this week with even less dramatic friction than the above, and it's called How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Based on the novel by Terry McMillan, it's one of those Personal Growth stories that I hesitate to call a woman's picture - no woman I know would be taken in by its shameless fantasy-peddling. Stella (Angela Bassett) is a 40-year-old stockbroker and single mother so wrapped up in her work that she's forgotten how to have fun. On a whim, she takes off with her best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) for a holiday in Jamaica, hoping to rediscover her, um, groove. In double-quick time she finds herself the love object of a hunky youth (Taye Diggs) who's half her age: cue some minor dithering on Stella's part about the disparity in years, followed by some major holiday romancing in de luxe Caribbean surroundings.

The first-time director Kevin Rodney Sullivan gives his camera full licence to wallow within the two-hour span, drawing out every sun-kissed beach scene to Chinese water-torture length. As if waking up to its complete absence of drama, the story has recourse, like last week's Stepmom, to the queasy standby of terminal illness: Delilah is fading away with cancer, though not before passing on to Stella some wonderful death-bed wisdom, the burden of which is to follow your dream. Or something.

In truth, this mawkishness should come as no surprise. Once you see the name of Ron Bass under screenplay credit - this the man behind Waiting to Exhale and the abominable What Dreams May Come - you'd be wise to assume the crash position. If emotional terrorism were a criminal offence, Mr Bass would go down for life. All that saves Stella from being absolutely irredeemable is the opportunity it offers to gaze upon the Amazonian gorgeousness of Angela Bassett; you would have thought from looking at that wise, elegantly planed face that she'd be too smart to lend herself to this junk, but no. As Stella's girlfriends keep saying, "Don't go there."