REVIEW: Patricia Clarkson Leads Lustrous Cairo Time
Cairo Time is the kind of slender, willowy picture that could easily be dismissed as inconsequential, maybe even laughable: A fiftyish magazine writer, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), travels to Cairo to meet her husband, who works for the United Nations and is stationed in the area. He's called away on urgent business and thus sends his former bodyguard, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to meet her. The inevitable happens: Juliette's husband is delayed for days, and Tareq assumes a greater role in her adventure, first as a guide and protector and then as a friend. Nothing -- and everything -- happens between them.
I know what you're thinking: Isn't this the plot of a dog-eared Harlequin you once thumbed through at a summer rental? Isn't this the plot of every dog-eared Harlequin ever left behind at a summer rental? But movies are, or at least ought to be, about so much more than their plot mechanics, and Cairo Time -- the second feature by Syrian-Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda (her first was the 2005 Sabah, featuring the Armenian-Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian) -- never succumbs to cheap romance-novel gauziness. Instead, it's light and supple, like a silk veil, and the picture's straightforward, unadorned structure gives the actors plenty to work with. They open the movie outward, instead of turning it into a work of cozy romantic insularity.
Like so many movie love stories before it -- from Murnau's Sunrise to Linklater's Before Sunrise, and beyond -- Cairo Time is about two wandering lovers, people spending time together without realizing how precious that time will come to be. When Juliette arrives in Cairo, Tareq is courteous but reserved, and she is too: He brings her to her hotel, and both assume that will be the end of it. Juliette is happy to wander the city by herself, but aside from the fact that she's an obvious American, her radiant, gloriously middle-aged blondness is a beacon. The local men stare at her and cluster around her, murmuring what we can presume are lewd suggestions. Juliette pretends, at first, to be unfazed, but all this male attention isn't just an annoyance; it's restrictive.
She doesn't intend to make Tareq her protector, but the two keep finding their way back to each other. They wander the city, talking idly about their likes and dislikes, the winding and sometimes rocky paths their lives have taken, and about Cairo itself. Juliette is taken aback and troubled by the children who beg on the street or who toil in the carpet factories. Tareq, while not unsympathetic to their plight, explains to her that if she lived there, she'd better understand how everyone simply has his or her place. (The unspoken subtext is that the same rule also applies to women: Juliette learns early on, for example, that certain cafes are only for men.) Juliette may be too naïve, but Tareq may be too complacent. They spar a little, but the complicated beauty of the city -- it's both dusty and glittering, pedestrian and magical -- draws them into its embrace. And Juliette discovers how the rhythms of a new city can change you from within, once you settle into them.
The picture, shot on location by Luc Montpellier, is gorgeous to look at, without having the flat prettiness of a travelogue: He balances the area's vibrant colors with its soft ones -- for every vivid red, there are a thousand muted variations of gold. Clarkson also looks radiant, which is no surprise, and she's pure pleasure to watch. She brings just the right combination of flintiness and flirtiness to the role: At one point she teases Tareq, who's wearing a sort of long tunic commonly worn by men in the area, saying, "I like your dress" -- a sly way of deflating some of the macho tendencies that his culture has instilled in him. Siddig (maybe best known for his role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, though he's also appeared in Syriana and Kingdom of Heaven) is a good match for her. Tareq is happy to challenge Juliette and even, perhaps, to try to dominate her, but in the end he simply has to accept that she's like no one he's ever met. Siddig plays the role with doses of good humor, instead of just the smoldering seriousness we see all the time in Middle Eastern male characters.
Though I won't tell you exactly how Cairo Time ends, it's all too easy to guess. The idea, of course, is that at some point most human beings have to accept that love isn't always meant to last for eternity. There's no sentimentality in Clarkson's performance, but there's no hardness, either. She plays Juliette as if she's just acknowledging a basic truth: That a person who's open to the world is bound to be hurt by it. It's a measure of how good she is that in the end you almost feel worse for Tareq. In his final scene, he wears a look that tells you he knows how much he's lost.