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Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig.
Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig.

Film

A pretty travelogue. A pretty forgettable romance Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Cairo Time

  • Written and directed by Ruba Nadda
  • Starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig
  • Classification: G

Toronto director Ruba Nadda's follow-up to her first feature, Sabah , is the story of a woman who goes to Egypt to meet her husband and, when he doesn't show up on time, becomes close to an Egyptian man. That's all there is to it, really, in a film about travel and romantic yearning, with the turmoil of the Gaza strip somewhere in the distant background. Though the aim is subtlety, Cairo Time often seems to be making too much of too little.

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Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is a Canadian journalist working for a women's magazine, who has arrived in Cairo to meet her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), a United Nations aid worker in Gaza. She has come to Egypt so they can share the experience of seeing the pyramids together. But when Mark is unexpectedly delayed at a refugee camp, he sends a former employee named Tareq (Alexander Siddig), now a café owner, to pick her up at the airport.

Liam Lacey on Cairo TimeWatch Globe film critic Liam Lacey's 60-second video reviews

As the days go on, Mark keeps getting held up, giving Juliette and Tareq more opportunities to be thrown together. The story follows Juliette's cultural and sensual initiation, as she has the unaccustomed experience of being followed by groups of young men, of discovering that there are men-only cafés, and learning to smoke a hookah pipe.

Though Cairo Time has similarities to other city romances, such as the Tokyo-set Lost in Translation and the Paris-based Before Sunrise , the city here often seems more interesting than the people. There's something obviously stereotypical about the attraction between the privileged Western woman and her handsome, quiet suitor. For a journalist, Juliette seems curiously underprepared for her Egyptian visit. (Doesn't Frommer's have anything to say about Western women travelling alone in the Middle East?) Her experiences with Tareq amount to an appreciation course for a culture that puts more emphasis on gender than she's used to.

One disappointment here is that Patricia Clarkson, the queen of indie film, is missing much of her usual spark. Her performance may be aiming for sensual, but too often it comes across more as listless. (Perhaps the Egyptian heat got to her.) Alexander Siddig ( Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ) makes for a courtly host, though the attraction between these two polite people has no great urgency. The sparse dialogue does little to explain what they share beyond proximity and loneliness: She has the empty-nest blues and an overly busy husband; he's a commitment-phobic loner, belatedly coming to terms with his choices.

There's a potentially interesting subplot in which Juliette, in an attempt to get to her husband, takes a bus out of town. She's turned back by the military, but only after illicitly taking a note from a young woman. For a scene or two, this development threatens to transform the film into a political thriller, but eventually it comes to little.

Too often, Cairo Time feels like a skin of a story stitched onto a pretty travelogue. The most memorable images are of the marketplaces, chaotic traffic, intensely blue skies and the chalky formations of desert. The story of the relationship of Juliette and Tareq, by contrast, feels like an earnest but misguided attempt to construct a pyramid out of a mole hill.

Writer-director Ruba Nadda will participate in a Q&A after these screenings at Toronto's Varsity Cinemas this weekend: 7 p.m. today and 2:40 p.m. and 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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