The opening scenes echo the more frantic moments of Nicolas Roeg's 1973 nightmare thriller, Don't Look Now. A child is lost in the backstreets of a market quarter - a labyrinth which the sun rarely penetrates. Even the fish on the slab are monster-scale, like the enormous people who shout in strange tongues and laugh in the girl's face as she blunders into shop entrances. Someone far away is calling "Lucy" but the voice disappears down alleyways or is smothered by the crowd.
All is well - Kate Winslet, currently the British film industry's hottest property, wakes up on a mattress in a low-rent corner of Marrakech, gasping in terror and dripping with sweat. Her two "daughters" are sleeping safely across the cheap hotel room. It's a parent's nightmare, not a child's, in the opening of Hideous Kinky, the film of Esther Freud's novel, directed by Gillies MacKinnon.
The book, published in 1992 and currently being introduced to a generation of teenagers by a new schools edition, is firmly rooted in six-year-old Lucy and eight-year-old Bea's experience of Mum's Great Adventure. Related with breathless enthusiasm by Lucy, it is based on the year Esther Freud and her sister Bella (daughters of the painter Lucian Freud) were taken by their mother to live in Marrakech, where money went further and the weather was warmer.
The film, now on general release, takes an older but not necessarily wiser, perspective. Julia, the fictional version of Bernadine, the Freud sisters' mother, becomes the central character.
"Sticking completely to the child's point of view in the film would have been impossible as the mother's role is less prominent in the book. The result would probably have been that Kate Winslet wouldn't have been in it," says MacKinnon, whose last film was of Pat Barker's First World War novel Regeneration. "And there's a limit to the number of hours a day you can work with a young child in a foreign country. A film made purely from the child's point of view, with the children in every scene, would be prohibitively expensive."
Julia is the central focus of the film, which follows her search for a spiritual path and her relationship with Bilal, the Moroccan acrobat who becomes a father figure to the children. But, as in the book, there is a constant chorus of the girls' perceptions, rivalries and secret language ("hideous kinky" is one of the nonsensical but deeply meaningful phrases they repeat to each other, mixed up with the Arabic they have learned from their fellow inmates in the run-down Hotel Moulay).
They have a stream of worries - will the money come from England soon? Will Julia become a Sufi, one of the devout who "pray a lot, won't kill flies and never go out"? Will they go home one day and have cornflakes and mashed potato again?
The balance of child and adult points of view and identities, and the way in which they become blurred, provide added interest in an otherwise simple feelgood story of a magic carpet ride out of limited expectations. Julia has decided the frustration of queueing in the Marrakech post office for elusive cheques from England is a small price to pay for the chance to discover a new culture.
The film helps answer the question: "What do we mean when we talk about 'the child' and 'childhood'?" which Kim Reynolds, reader in children's literature at Roehampton Institute, asked in a recent Royal Society of Arts lecture on "The Changing Child".
She says: "When you ask 18-year-old students this question, they are invariably already looking back on childhood with nostalgia and come up with such words as innocent, trouble-free, protected and full of potential." The basis for the widespread myth of carefree childhood, she argues, lies in Sir Joshua Reynolds's painting "The Age of Innocence", which "places its child subject in nature, looking away from sexual knowledge and the chaos of society".
The Hideous Kinky era - the late Sixties and early Seventies - is the most recent period in history when the identities of children and adults seemed to merge, at least in certain circles. Hippy adults wore bright, flyaway clothes, ate too many (hallucinogenic) sweets, had no mortgages or visible means of support and experimented with "sexual knowledge and the chaos of society". In the process, some children became adults before their time, even if their concerns were on the "Shouldn't I be in school?" level of those expressed by Bea, Julia's sensible, eldest child.
Bea is played by a newcomer, Bella Riza, who was discovered when casting director Susie Figgis visited her London primary school. The story of her recruitment is a warning to any parent who fails to go through the school bag every night. The crumpled note Bella's mother found at the bottom of her bag was an invitation to a casting session for the final eight candidates, dated several weeks earlier. Bea would never have done such a thing. But Bella still managed to meet MacKinnon and Winslet and was hired alongside Carrie Mullan, a member of the Bristol Old Vic Youth Theatre.
MacKinnon has described his work with the girls as "butterfly-catching", capturing their spontaneity on film before it disappears. "When we started work two very distinct personalities emerged. They were certainly two little people rather than children. Bella is introspective, thoughtful and quite still, while Carrie is completely spontaneous - I threw her in the air and she flew."
Carrie and Bea played children caught up in the biggest peacetime migration of young adult Europeans. The pleasure-driven exodus to the Mediterranean, Asia and North Africa of twenty and thirtysomethings is a recent memory - if not a living fantasy - for many of today's responsible grown-ups.
Gillies MacKinnon joined the exodus from grey old Britain in 1972 and first saw the Hideous Kinky locations, or something similar, from a beat-up van almost 20 years ago. "That trip lasted a month, then I was back in 1976 for a much bigger adventure. I stayed six months and spent a month in the Sahara with a Tuareg tribe."
He was offered the chance to direct Hideous Kinky when his brother Billy was working on the screenplay. Billy was script editor on Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano and Gillies's collaborator on Small Faces, the 1995 film set in the Glasgow of their own childhood.
When the opportunity to return to Morocco came up, Gillies says, "there were too many connections to say anything but yes. It's also a wonderful story about an exceptional young woman and two exceptional girls who, as we know, became exceptional adults." (Esther is now an established novelist and Bella a successful fashion designer.) There is a sense of a holiday for all concerned about the film. Kate Winslet was recovering from a long haul filming on Titanic and met her husband (MacKinnon's third assistant director, Jim Threapleton) on the set in Morocco. MacKinnon himself had just finished work on Regeneration. He says: "I had found it emotionally draining. Hideous Kinky was an enticing project - I was attracted by the light, music and colour."
The shots of Kate Winslet hoisting her bedroll on her back, taking her kids by the hand and hitching a ride into the sunset generate wistful sighs around the cinema, interspersed with a sense of late Nineties unease. In one scene, a childless, well-heeled Englishwoman makes noises about parental responsibility and Julia justifies her decision to let the girls hop on to the magic carpet. The Seventies, MacKinnon points out, had fewer obstructions to the spirit of adventure. "The world was more optimistic, naive and open. The girls' mother was able to invent a new life for herself and her daughters although she still had to take a brave step in doing it. Her role as a mother helped - Islamic society respects mothers."
The film extends the exploration of cultural differences by inventing a wife for Julia's lover in his home village and showing how he has to live permanently in the community that the Europeans, even the poor ones, use to recharge their batteries and are eventually free to leave. This is one theme that might interest young teenagers reading the Collins Cascades schools edition or studying the screenplay.
Hideous Kinky is also an obvious choice for National Year of Reading projects linked to film, such as the "film-of-the-book" screenings organised by Film Education for January's theme of Screen Reads. Film Education has also produced a free GCSE screenplay study pack, which could be used alongside Billy MacKinnon's script.
But above all, it's a treat for a wet February. Now, where did I put that backpack?
Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud is published by Collins Educational (Cascades, pound;5.99) and Penguin (pound;6.99). Billy MacKinnon's screenplay will shortly be published by Screenplay Press pound;7.99. l See details of Film Education's Screen Reads programme in 'Friday', page 32. Film Education's new resource packs include Screenplay (free to schools) and Film and Literacy (part one of two, pound;16.50 inc pamp;p) from Film Education Alhambra House, 27-31 Charing Cross Road, London WC2 OAU. Tel: 0171 976 2291, fax: 0171 839 5052E-mail: email@example.comWeb site: http:www.filmeducation. org