(PG) Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig
Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) travels to Cairo for a holiday with her husband and looks forward to fulfilling their pledge to see the Pyramids together.
Unable to leave his work as a UN worker at a refugee camp in Gaza, her husband asks a former colleague, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to help his wife settle into her hotel.
Disoriented and missing her husband, Juliette soon realises that spending time with “the petroleum wives” will send her crazy and negotiating the city alone will attract unwanted male attention. She seeks out Tareq at his café and, as the pair spend more time together, their bond grows.
While this is a gentle story of two restrained people negotiating a burgeoning affection, Cairo is the real star of this movie. Imagine chalky deserts, bustling bazaars, all-male coffee houses, a weaving centre, glimmering river views, the smoking of hookah pipes, a local wedding ceremony plus a pyramid around every corner.
Unfortunately, attempts to lift Cairo Time beyond the beautifully-filmed travelogue fail. Issues like child labour and the status of women are broached but feel stilted. The broaching is meant to reveal the pair’s culture clash: Does Juliette have a right to comment on perceived injustice if she is outside the culture? Is Tareq right in saying that Juliette’s 12-hour working days don’t sound to him like a good life? Responses sound forced or quickly peter.
Even when Tareq’s mature-aged singleness is questioned, there’s a flat answer: Fate. Tareq also says he can’t pursue a sweetheart from his youth who broke his heart — even though she’s now a widow — because, “She’s Christian Armenian. I am Muslim. It’s totally forbidden.”
I welcomed a low-key “romance” that refrained from obligatory bedroom wrangling. However, the frisson between Clarkson and Tareq is so gentle it was hard as a viewer to feel connected.
What Cairo Time shows is that there can be times in travelling when two strangers get thrown together, glimpse each other’s different backgrounds and form an emotional bond. This does not have to result in major marital distress or tortuous long distance communication — even though parting may cause sadness.
This low-key achievement and the beautiful Cairo scenery are not really enough to make the movie hum.
If you’re flush, buy a plane ticket to Egypt. If not, wait for Cairo Time on DVD.
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