Friday, September 24, 2010

Cairo Time: A Charming 'Time'

Cairo Time (2010) • View trailer for Cairo Time
Four stars (out of five) • Rated PG for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.24.10
Buy DVD: Cairo Time • Buy Blu-Ray: Cairo Time [Blu-ray]

Writer/director Ruba Nadda's quiet little character study is thoughtful and spare: a big-screen Hemingway short story ... allowing for the fact that the primary protagonist here is a woman.

But not just any woman: Juliette Grant is played by Patricia Clarkson, a superlative actress generally confined to supporting roles  such as Emma Stone's mother, in Easy A  who absolutely deserves this starring shot. She first caught my attention with back-to-back performances in 2003, in The Station Agent and Pieces of April, the latter bringing her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Although she has been delaying a visit to some of Cairo's
fabled landmarks, in the hopes of sharing them with her
absent husband, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) finally allows
new friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to be her guide: an
oddly intimate gesture typical of the Brief Encounter-style
relationship that evolves during the course of this
cinematic tone-poem.
Clarkson had been busy prior to that, and I wasn't surprised to discover that she had delivered memorable roles in Playing by Heart (1998), The Green Mile (1999) and Far from Heaven (2002). It can be fun, after "suddenly" being struck by somebody's talent, to back-trace and discover that you've been admiring her for years, without quite being aware of it.

All of which brings us to Cairo Time, in which Clarkson shines as an American woman wholly out of her element. Juliette has flown into Cairo to spend a long-overdue vacation with her husband, Mark. They're both workaholics: She has an executive editorial position with a high-tone woman's magazine that's both glossy and superficial; he's a dedicated United Nations relief worker.

Unhappily, he's not at the airport to meet her. Instead, Juliette is collected by Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), until recently one of her husband's colleagues, who explains that Mark has been "detained" at the Gaza Strip. That word is pregnant with meaning, in this part of the world, but a phone call that evening reassures Juliette that Mark is fine ... but not likely to get away soon.

He strongly advises that she remain in the hotel, a suggestion we can tell insults Juliette, from her body language. Nadda's touch here is subtle, as is Clarkson's acting; we gradually discover Juliette's character more through her reactions to people and situations  bewilderment, concern, refined indignation  than through anything overt she says or does.

Regarding herself a modern, self-reliant woman, Juliette naturally charges through Cairo's streets the very next day, attracting all sorts of unwanted attention from young men who view her uncovered blond hair as the worst sort of provocative invitation. She quickly senses that something is wrong, but doesn't understand what; she flees into a restaurant where the manager perceives and solves the problem, by escorting her to a quiet table.

The gradually emerging portrait is of a different sort of blundering American: a tourist marked not by arrogance, but well-intentioned unfamiliarity. Time and again, Juliette is dismayed by the difficulties caused by what seem  to her  routine actions: boarding a bus, entering a coffee shop.

The latter occurs when she tracks Tareq to the coffee emporium he runs: the small business he has "retired" to. She fails to notice that the shop caters only to men; when she looks around, embarrassed, after he explains this, she asks why nobody thought to tell her.

"That would be rude," Tareq gently replies, and Siddig gives the line just enough heft to add an unspoken edge. He's not exactly chiding her, but she takes it that way. Once again, Juliette's pride has been wounded.

This seems an unlikely beginning for a friendship, and yet that's the way it often happens. Truth be told, these two are alike at the core. Juliette is crushed by having been abandoned by Mark, her dreams of an exotic vacation in utter disarray, her psyche repeatedly challenged by a rising awareness of her utter unsuitability to this environment.

She's lonely; so is Tareq, albeit for different reasons. And so, the epitome of graciousness, he takes a more active interest in granting her at least a portion of the Egyptian adventure she craved. She blossoms under his attention; he ... notices.

Cairo Time can be viewed as something of a companion piece to Lost in Translation  another abandoned wife in a foreign land, attempting to make the best of circumstances  although the dynamic here is wholly different. Juliette and Tareq are peers, and therefore subject to the undercurrent of stolen glances and sexual tension: the spark that ignites when good manners slide into something stronger ... a warm smile here, the polite touch of a hand there.

It feels spontaneous and wholly genuine, as if Nadda hasn't made a dramatic movie, but instead secretly followed two real-world people through Cairo's bustling streets, clandestinely recording their every moment and spoken word. But that's not quite correct either; Nadda's script grants Clarkson and Siddig precise lines that suggest their emotions during this slow evolution of their relationship.

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, drama is real life with the dull bits cut out. We eavesdrop here on the key moments between Juliette and Tareq, and the growing weight of their bond sneaks up on us; the film's final 10 minutes are impressively, unexpectedly powerful.

Siddig matches Clarkson: moment for moment, movement for movement. Nadda trusts him, just as much, to convey a scene's import: sometimes through gesture and attitude, rather than dialogue. Tareq never says a word after "rescuing" Juliette from one of her ill-advised excursions, and yet we unerringly perceive his impatience and disapproval, along with the resulting contradiction: He's all the more irritated  albeit too gallant to upbraid her  because he has grown to care for her.

For many viewers, Siddig will be remembered forever as Dr. Julian Bashir on TV's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but as he amply demonstrates here, that show didn't begin to plumb his artistic depths.

Elena Anaya is memorable as Kathryn, a free-spirited young woman who befriends Juliette early on. Alas, this relationship doesn't "catch," and Kathryn vanishes after the first act. Amina Annabi leaves a much stronger impression as Yasmeen, the "woman who got away" earlier in Tareq's life, and (perhaps) the source of the melancholy longing that etches his face.

Niall Byrne's score is exceptional, most particularly his haunting solo piano themes: brief sonatas that perfectly complement the on-screen events, and go great lengths toward amplifying the emotional weight of a given scene. This is the sort of music that, heard again in any different context  on the radio or home stereo  will immediately evoke the movie, indeed the scene, from which it sprang.

Byrne's soundtrack is as lush as Luc Montpellier's cinematography, which captures Cairo in all its vibrant, colorful, bustling glory. This is a most unusual romantic triangle, the city as strong a character as the two people walking its streets.

Cairo Time isn't for all tastes; many will regard Nadda's leisurely pace as plodding, the acting style by Clarkson and Siddig as monotonous, rather than exquisitely shaded. On the other hand, this is a dream movie for people-watchers: those of us who enjoy sitting in a park and fabricating fictitious stories to explain the subtle behavior of folks who stroll past, or pause for unknown reasons.

Nadda has simply written this story for us, and she has done so quite persuasively.

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