Two new British films, Metroland and Hideous Kinky, are based on novels – by Julian Barnes and Esther Freud respectively – which examine familiar topics in English literature through a more contemporary lens.
Familial obligation vs. personal fulfillment, the rigid conformity of British life vs. the alluring emotional thaw of other cultures, and the price paid for defying – and maintaining – conventions are some of the time-honored decisions the characters must make. But in these stories, they must also navigate their way through the massive social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s.
Adapted by Adrian Hodges and directed by Philip Saville, Metroland focuses on 30-something Chris (Christian Bale) who, in 1977, is living a comfortable existence in a staid community at the far reaches of the London metropolitan line, the same suburbs where he grew up.
Although he obviously loves his wife, the pragmatic Marion (Emily Watson), and baby daughter, Chris takes late night walks through this quiet neighborhood fighting off a nagging panic. Once a scornful teenager, then a budding bohemian in Paris, he’s now a proper young advertising executive and wonders if he’s "sold out." His friend Toni (Lee Ross) certainly thinks so. A poet-seducer-provocateur, Toni has recently returned to England after another round of world travel and reckless love affairs.
Chris confesses to Toni that he’s become a somnambulist in his waking life, drifting off into elaborate fantasies and haunted by vivid recollections of his sexual and emotional awakening with Annick (Elsa Zylberstein), his French girlfriend who represented everything Chris thought he wanted.
Metroland is a bit rocky at first, but when director Philip Saville finally lets Chris’ memories with Annick play out – along with Marion’s participation – the film becomes a very interesting commentary on his personal decision-making process. What to do when your culture offers one option, yet your generation demands that rejecting it is the only real path?
For Chris, that means finally coming to terms with his own nature, which never quite fit with the adventurous, mind-expanding mythology of his peers. This isn’t a problem for Julia (Kate Winslet) in Hideous Kinky who, fueled by a reckless optimism and desire for enlightenment, journeys in 1972 to Morocco, bringing her two young daughters along for the physical and spiritual journey.
A big part of the difference between Metroland and Hideous Kinky is the underlying gender perspective. While Chris sees freedom as his birthright and family life as a trap he’s fallen into, Julia finds things quite a bit more complex.
Daughter of painter Lucian Freud – and granddaughter of Sigmund – Esther Freud based her semiautobiographical novel on her own experiences as a child. Much of the wild exuberance of Hideous Kinky, directed with verve by Gillies MacKinnon from a screenplay by his brother Billy MacKinnon, comes from the way the film sees things from a child’s point of view, even though the focus is on Julia more than on 8-year-old Bea (Bella Riza) or 6-year-old Lucy (Carrie Mullan).
The film’s first look at the D’Jemma el Fna market square in Marrakech is a whirl of wild colors and sounds seen through the eyes of a fearful Lucy, until Julia wakes up in a sweat from this anxiety dream. Her nocturnal fears, which crop up occasionally in Hideous Kinky, reflect the conflicts she has trouble acknowledging.
Separated from her artist "husband," who has moved on to another woman and children and sends infrequent support checks from London, Julia has come to North Africa to embrace Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In Kate Winslet’s complex performance, Julia is both a product of her times and a true seeker who can’t understand why her children, given this unique opportunity, won’t embrace the freedoms she has fought so hard to attain.
Bea actively seeks out anything that will make her more "normal," while Lucy embraces Bilal (Saïd Taghmaoui), a charismatic Moroccan street performer who becomes Julia’s lover, as her surrogate father figure.
Hideous Kinky – the title comes from a word game concocted by the two sisters – is more willing to go out on a limb than Metroland, and more successfully captures the messy nature of its time.
Perpetually cash poor, Julia is faced with real questions of responsibility after embarking on this life-altering adventure with her daughters, hoping that amidst the conflicts and constant upheavals, she can attain some inner peace.
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