The romance of travel got a big-screen, big-budget push a few weeks ago from Eat Pray Love. But quietly waiting in the wings was a better film about self-examination in a foreign land: Cairo Time. Written and directed by Ruba Nadda, Cairo Time has made its rounds on the festival circuit, winning over audiences with its genteel version of the archetypal “forbidden love” romance-novel plot. Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, an Canadian in Cairo. Her UN-employed husband Mark (Tom McCamus) has been held up at the refugee camp he runs in Gaza, leaving vacationing magazine editor Juliette in a holding pattern.
By long distance, Mark arranges for old friend Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig of Syriana) to look after Juliette. A retired policeman and current coffee-shop owner, Tareq knows the city like the back of his hand, making him an expert guide (the key stop left off the itinerary: the Pyramids, which Juliette has promised to see with her husband). Tareq is a chivalrous breath of fresh air for Juliette, who’s unaccustomed to being the object of Cairo’s sometimes brusque public sexism.
The picturesque romantic travelogue that follows is as obvious but elegant as the bit of symbolism that ends it (I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself). The plot consists of two middle-aged people strolling around Cairo, each becoming more and more attuned to the attractiveness and uniqueness of the other. The plot points are seldom more dramatic than a game of chess or a stop for coffee and hookah, but an intimacy develops apace.
The demands of the multiplex make films like “Cairo Time” more welcome than ever: with an emphasis on male-female talk (a la Before Sunrise) and the Egyptian scenery, Nadda takes her film at a healthy walking pace. The visual style noticeably leans toward old-Hollywood glamor (when she dons a lemon-colored dress, Clarkson seems ready for a Cosmo shoot). The film’s most obvious downside is a simplistic outsider’s view of Cairo that’s only slightly mitigated by Tareq. At times, the script can be a little clunky (as in the early moment when someone says, "Oh, Juliette. Like Juliet and Romeo. How beautiful”), but Nadda proves capable enough of selling sincerity (“I never thought my trip would turn out like this”) while also knowingly undercutting the story’s conventions (Tareq’s tongue-in-cheek line “I suppose we are destined to never see each other again”).
Given her stature, it’s hard to believe that Patricia Clarkson has never headlined a feature before, but Cairo Time corrects that injustice. Clarkson gives her empty-nester a palpable sense of longing as she seeks out the next chapter of her life, She’s perfectly matched by the long-underestimated Siddig; when not tossing out casually charming lines, he fixes his attentive eyes on Clarkson, demonstrating that he knows job one in acting is listening. Together, the two make this second-chance romance a destination worth visiting.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]