Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
How unusual to see a love story for adults, one that takes its sweet time (yes, the Cairo Time of the title) while it alternately surprises, soothes and shakes you up. But quietly. Though it seems aimed at older audiences, it was made by a youthful filmmaker: Ruba Nadda, a Canadian writer/director with Middle-Eastern roots who is still in her 30s. To reap the full benefits of the film, you must be willing to enter the soul of the protagonist, a happily-married, middle-aged woman (Patricia Clarkson) arriving in Egypt for a vacation with her husband (employed by the United Nations and posted in Cairo).
Clarkson is as ravishing and as reserved as I have ever seen her (and I try to see her in everything she does). She also radiates intelligence and humor. Interestingly enough, her co-star, Alexander Siddig (from Syriana, The Nativity Story and The Last Legion) possesses all these qualities, too. He's a gorgeous man: beautiful, bright, reticent and witty. What a pair they make, and their story, as it flows quietly along with an occasional up or down, entrances. Siddig plays the recently-retired assistant of Clarkson's husband, the latter suddenly stuck in Palestine due to an "incident." Siddig has been asked to squire Clarkson around the city and cater to her needs until hubby returns.
This set-up is certainly realistic enough, and the pair relate to each other in a halting but friendly manner that grows only slowly into something more. A Hollywood version, made by folks a decade or so younger, would probably have the two people begin their relationship at odds with one another, fighting and then inevitably loving. Get over that scenario; these are mature adults, and Cairo Time is the kind of adult movie experience you'll want to share with every smart, mature moviegoer you know.
The relationship grows in very quiet increments, and the performances could hardly be more finely calibrated. Yet, thanks to Nadda's skill and that of her actors, there's nary a moment here that seems rehearsed or overly "planned." Sometimes, in fact, we're on tenterhooks as to what is going to happen; in terms of this relationship and its outcome, the movie is often as suspenseful as any thriller.
The film might also have you making plans to visit Egypt; it is doubtful that a better commercial for the country's travel industry has yet been made. Cairo really is a third character here, from the Nile that flows alongside Clarkson's hotel to the pyramids come off somehow differently here than I have experienced them so far on film. The marketplaces, the coffee houses, the streets (and the harrowing crossing of them), and most especially how the men of the city react to this strawberry-blond visitor: Cairo Time is a kind of a quiet revelation.
Custom clashes, the roles of men and women, the weaving looms, chess, and more; we experience all these through the eyes of both Clarkson's character and that of Siddig's. This makes the film richer and more complicated than a single view would have provided. In the supporting cast, only the lovely Elena Anaya (last seen here in Hierro, part of the 2009 FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now series) stands out. But the movie belongs to Clarkson and Siddig (and to the director).
Without giving too much away, I suspect the ending is what will separate the women from the girls (and the men from the boys -- if many males will even take a chance on this one). I found the finale very close to perfect -- though I admit, had this tale gone another way, I would have embraced that, too. The characters become so real and so full that I think most of us would follow them anywhere.
Bookmark/Search this post with: