Sunday 30 January 2011

Movie Review: Cairo Time (2009)

Cairo Time is a tender, old-fashioned romance, presented at a leisurely pace and finding the right balance between two journeys of exploration, one emotional and the other cultural.

American magazine editor Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) flies into Cairo for the first time to meet her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a United Nations worker, for a brief vacation. But Mark is held up helping to resolve a conflict in Gaza. He calls upon Tareq (Alexander Siddig), an Egyptian coffee shop owner and an old UN colleague, to meet Juliette at the airport and see her safely to her hotel. Mark's delay is extended. Knowing no one in Cairo and quickly encountering culture shock, Juliette turns to Tareq to help her tour the City. He shows her the local souks, they take a  trip on the Nile, and they travel to Alexandria to visit Yasmeen (Amina Annabi), who is Tareq's old flame, and whose daughter is getting married. Slowly Juliette and Tareq warm up to each other, despite the enormous cultural gulf between them.

Juliette and Mark had promised that they would only visit the pyramids together; but with the simmering attraction between Juliette and Tareq threatening to erupt into a full romance, Tareq escorts Juliette to the pyramids at sunrise, in what seems like a prelude to consummating their romance.

Cairo is the catalyst for the tale of unexpectedly emerging attachment, Juliette gradually falling in love with the City just as gently as she finds sparks building in her relationship with Tareq. Patricia Clarkson is steady at the core of the film, but almost too cold. Director Ruba Nadda's script rarely requires Juliette to do much more than nervously smile as she awkwardly navigates the next cultural hurdle. Alexander Siddiq is a more magnetic screen presence, and has a more interesting role as the host who needs to maintain the politeness of a generous tour guide, introducing Juliette to a foreign but welcoming culture while confronting the undeniable attraction growing between them.

Cairo Time has vague echoes of Romeo and Juliet, with its two unlikely lovers from different tribes battling against cultural barriers. The film also works as an interesting metaphor for political relationships between East and West: the unexpectedly deep involvement of the West in the affairs of the Middle East typically ending with aching hearts. When Juliette, based on the most meager of information and with little knowledge of their history, encourages Tareq to pursue a new relationship with Yasmeen, who is of a different ethnicity, it is difficult not to notice the parallels with the often ill-fated US meddling in the region, undermined by limited comprehension of local customs and intricacies.

Overtones aside, Cairo Time is a welcome throwback to old-school film-making, where characters and locations are the main focus, and romance is given the necessary time to blossom in the most unlikely places.

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