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Dustin Putman

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Cairo Time  (2010)
3 Stars
Directed by Ruba Nadda.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi, Mona Hala.
2010 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 9, 2010.
Sometimes the most moving films are the ones that don't feel the need to shoot from all cylinders, bombarding the viewer with melodramatic, overwrought situations and drippy, string-laden music cues as a means of manipulating one's emotions. "Cairo Time," in many ways a fitting companion piece to Sofia Coppola's 2003 contemporary masterwork "Lost in Translation," is consistently low-key and observant, an achingly beautiful snapshot of little more than a moment in time and the impact it has on two people who, at the end of the day, live on opposite sides of the world. Exquisitely written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, the picture works simultaneously as a stirring platonic love story, a quietly poignant character study, and a lush, luminescent travelogue. There is scarcely a false or artificial note in all its 90 minutes.

Overextended magazine editor Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) has traveled to Cairo for a much-needed vacation as she waits to reunite with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a United Nations worker finishing up his duties in Gaza. As their time apart grows longer than expected, Juliette steps out to tour her surroundings, growing enamored with the sandswept Egyptian landscapes even as she comes to notice the differences that signal to her just how far she is from home. Offering to escort Juliette around when it appears she might be safer with a male companion is Mark's local friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig). They've met once before—he picked her up at the airport when she first landed in Cairo—but now, with more time to spend together and get to know each other, the two of them sense a deeper unspoken bond.

A predictable and formulaic treatment of the same story would ultimately force Juliette and Tareq into the same bed and a physical love affair. "Cairo Time" is neither predictable nor formulaic, diverting pleasingly from these expectations and making the point that what Juliette and Tareq share is not necessarily passion, but a reciprocal desire for human connection at this specific time in their lives. If things were different—if, for example, Juliette was not happily married and willing to uproot her existence by moving to a foreign country—then perhaps there would be hope for a future between them. As it stands, however, the possibility of such is unrealistic and intangible, their limited time together a special something that might make for a lasting remembrance, but is destined to stay in their past.

Words are unnecessary when all that needs to be said is expressed on a great actor's face, and that is most certainly the case with the outstanding work done by Patricia Clarkson (2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland"). Her Juliette is in every scene, and she captures the screen in a way that only the finest performers can. All that Juliette is and has been—emotionally, that is—can be detected just by watching her. With her children grown and her job time-consuming, she feels less guilt about the twelve-hour shifts she puts in, yet has started to discover how much more than just what pays the bills is out there. Mark, largely unseen, speaks to Juliette on the phone, and the viewer gets the feeling that their relationship is a loving, solid one, even if they don't get to see each other as much as hoped. Meanwhile, out and about and initially on her own during the day, Juliette is briefly accosted by a group of younger men on the street, no doubt intrigued by this white woman who defies their own culture by not so much as wearing a headdress. She later mentions it's been years since guys treated her that way. It was a potentially dangerous experience, but one that she silently kind of liked—for the attention, yes, but also for the power. When, after a day of sightseeing, Tareq dares to kiss Juliette adieu at her hotel elevator, she returns to her room and the smile she gives as she lays on the couch speaks volumes about her own liberation. Nothing more is going to happen between them—she won't let it, and he now is well aware of where her boundary is—yet she has no trouble entertaining the notion that, as a middle-aged woman, she can still be wanted and desired.

If Patricia Clarkson is the glue that continues to hold the enthralling, if leisurely, narrative together—and just a simple look in her eyes has the weight to delight or break one's heart—then Alexander Siddig (2010's "Clash of the Titans") is her commanding, mild-mannered counterpart as Tareq. Never married and without children, Tareq harbors a melancholy regret over the time he has wasted standing along the sidelines of his own life. He still pines for a former classmate, Yasmeen (Ameena Annabi), who went on to marry someone else, have a daughter, and divorce. Now, meeting once again for her daughter's wedding, Tareq is held back by doubt. Maybe their one-time chance has passed both of them by. Or, it could be the opposite—the perfect time to finally admit his feelings to her. Director Ruba Nadda suggests these things without needing to answer them; what happens to Tareq—and, for that matter, Juliette—after the film ends is open to interpretation, and not a part of their own respective story as passing kindred spirits. In Juliette, Tareq glimpses a happy alternative, but knows better than to expect it. What he gets, instead, is newfound hope for what is about to become a new phase in his life.

As the film's central relationship develops and plays out, director Ruba Nadda gains a lot of extra mileage out of the unhurried, intoxicating rhythm of her screenplay, itself equating to the motion of Juliette's day-to-day exploration and curiosity even as she is stuck in a waiting period for her busy husband's return. From this, invaluable opportunities emerge to truly delve into the exotic setting, the audience right next to the lead characters as they sight-see Cairo and its neighboring locations. The cinematography by Luc Montpellier is naturally sumptuous, but also nostalgic in the way memories of great vacations often become just that after the fact. The depiction of the differences in religious and cultural beliefs and customs between the Western world and the Middle East is insightful and unsentimental, with Juliette learning more as she goes without becoming critical of the things she does not agree with or understand.

Before Tareq reenters the story in earnest following his first-act appearance, Juliette befriends Kathryn (Elena Anaya), whose boyfriend also works for the UN and who has been left to manage on her own. Following an early sequence where they tour the city together, Kathryn exits the proceedings and is not mentioned again. A final scene between the two might have better wrapped this memorable supporting player up. Excepting this, "Cairo Time" is a practically faultless drama of the sort Hollywood rarely makes (it's no surprise, then, that the picture is Canadian-financed), where silences mean just as much as the dialogue and the inner conflicts of the characters take precedence over a neat and tidy external plot. The final scenes, which will be left for each individual viewer to discover, are a bittersweet capper, the pivotal use of The Everly Brothers' "('Til) I Kissed You" playing on a car radio ingeniously standing in for a Greek chorus as Juliette reminisces upon what has happened over the last several days and reacquaints herself with her old life—one that she knows how lucky she is to have. Gentle, unforced, yet tremendously affecting, the act of watching "Cairo Time" is as assured and easy as breathing. As for Patricia Clarkson's inestimable contributions, hers is one of the loveliest performances of the year.
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman