One by one, the films from last year’s film-festival circuit are arriving at last. The wonderful and versatile character actress Patricia Clarkson is subtly enchanting in Cairo Time, a Canadian film set in Egypt about a slight but heartfelt romantic interlude between a modern New York career woman and a courtly, old-fashioned Muslim, at a time of political tension that writer-director Ruba Nadda conveniently overlooks. It’s not a perfect movie, but its minor weaknesses are outweighed by its major strengths: understated feelings and values and a welcome subtlety all too rare on screens today.
Cool and pale as lemon juice on ice, Ms. Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, a New York magazine editor who arrives in the feral heat of Cairo to visit her husband, a U.N. diplomat, only to find that he has been detained in Gaza on an urgent peacekeeping mission. The man assigned to take her sightseeing and protect her from ennui is Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), her husband’s former security officer, a handsome and sensitive English-speaking Muslim who has now retired from the diplomatic corps to run his family’s profitable coffee business. Escorted through the sights and sounds of the bustling city, Juliette is first just grateful for Tareq’s courteous attention to a bored and lonely foreigner, and welcomes the companionship. But as the hot days glide into starry nights, an intense attraction develops between the tourist and her guide. She beats him at chess, providing him with a new respect for the intelligence of women. She accompanies him to a wedding in Alexandria and meets an old girlfriend he broke up with because she was a Christian, gaining new insight into his traditions and regrets. It takes a long time, but emotional undercurrents finally intensify and sparks fly, fueled by unexpected feelings of mutual respect. Will the restrained, 40-something American wife and the refined Arabian bachelor with Old World manners and a formal attitude toward women challenge their separate customs, convictions and religious values, and take a fleeting affair one step further? The tension is palpable, but the film is too subtle to lead you in the direction of clichéd passions. It all leads to a logical and sensible conclusion. No lives are shattered, but at least two people who are sealed against the world have felt a stirring in their hearts.
It’s not a perfect movie, but its minor weaknesses are outweighed by its major strengths: understated feelings and values and a welcome subtlety all too rare on screens today.
Small caveats: Director Nadda eschews any real hints of anti-Americanism in Cairo today and all possible terrorist undertones in a country of largely unfriendly exotic dangers that render it an unsafe region for women alone, almost as though Cairo Time means to be nothing more than a travelogue promoting tourism. But let it be said that the tours Tareq conducts of the ancient city casbah, the brown Nile at sundown and the awesome Giza pyramids lit by the moon are worth the price of admission-not to mention the sweet abundance of Ms. Clarkson’s talents and the alchemy between the two stars. The character development is almost as unfocused as their unrequited love story. Both characters are just too damned polite. As good as she is, Ms. Clarkson doesn’t have much to do. For a workaholic, she never seems to do any work. In fact, nothing much really happens at all, but never mind. What emerges is time pleasantly spent with a slice of life that examines a romantic détente between two cultures. Like smoke from an Egyptian hookah, the melancholia lingers.
Running time 90 minutes
Written and directed by Ruba Nadda
Starring Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig
3 Eyeballs out of 4