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Movie review: 'Cairo Time'

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig supply quiet, nonverbal intensity to a tale of a delicious if potentially damaging flirtation with romance.

August 06, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

" Cairo Time" stars Patricia Clarkson in a lovely and languid flirtation with a foreign land, an exotic man and the possibility that, long after the future seems set in stone, it might not be quite so predictable after all.

Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda's new film feeds off the cool beauty of Clarkson and the dry heat of Alexander Siddig as strangers thrown together by circumstance. Also in play are the romantic notions that so often accompany travel, primarily those daydreams of chucking the life you have for the life you imagine you might have if only, if only, if only ... .

Clarkson is Juliette, a sophisticate headed to Cairo for a vacation with her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), a top U.N. official who's been unexpectedly dispatched to a Gaza hotspot. Tareq (Siddig) is the longtime Egyptian friend he's enlisted to meet her flight and keep watch over her until he can break away.

The story opens with their awkward airport meeting, the polite but strained conversation of the newly and not so happily acquainted. But Nadda is in no rush, slowly warming her comely pair under the desert sun and the affection they both have for Mark. Though we're left to mostly imagine the absent husband, there is an easiness and intimacy to Juliette's phone conversations with him that suggest a happy marriage. And when Tareq offers to take her to see the pyramids, she demurs — those she and Mark have vowed to see together.

With Mark delayed again and again, Juliette is at loose ends. Her rising frustration is soon overtaken by the enticement of Cairo, and she sets out to explore it all — the city, her unexpected solitude and the handsome Tareq with his mysteries and substantial charms. Nadda is content to let us luxuriate in the unfolding complications and connections between them, giving veteran director of photography Luc Montpellier (who shot Nadda's last cut at love, 2005's "Sabah") time to capture the beauty of the place and this mismatched set.

The attraction of opposites and the inherent difficulties that follow are favorite topics for the filmmaker, who has something of an obsession with affairs of the heart. Which might be a drawback except that she keeps improving with time. Juliette and Tareq discover each other in many of the ways typical of these types of fairy-tale romances — strolling through local bazaars, chess matches in the coffee house, long candlelit dinners — moments that carry the chance for hands to brush, looks to linger or an out-of-control cart to force them into each other's arms. But more often than not the embrace doesn't come; instead temptation is left to hang heavy in the air.

Hints of their other lives surface during Juliette's swing through Cairo's diplomatic scene, and Tareq's chance encounter with an old love, which serves to give a sense of the individuals they were as well as the couple they might become. Friction, when it surfaces, becomes critical, since dangerous moments have a way of crystallizing feelings, and neither wants to contemplate the implications of the betrayal of a husband, of a friend.

The dialogue is spare, a good thing since it is here that nuance suddenly and regrettably occasionally slips away with moments that strain credibility and a few lines likely to make you cringe.

Thankfully, Nadda lets much of the insight and understanding come from watching Clarkson and Siddig watch each other. Ultimately the film rises on the heat of Juliette and Tareq, made irresistible by Clarkson and Siddig, and making "Cairo Time" well worth the trip.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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