A woman lost and found amid the chaos
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 20, 2010
Patricia Clarkson has a voice like toasted pecans drenched in bourbon. Sultry and refined, classically beautiful but not Hollywood perfect, she is often the best thing about the movies she's in -- and, all too often, she's in them too briefly. In "Cairo Time," a gentle, achingly romantic bagatelle from Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda, Clarkson finally claims the romantic leading role she has long deserved. Delivering a tender, unshowy performance as eloquent in its silences as in her seductive, peppery whisper, Clarkson proves what her fans have known forever: She's ready for the spotlight. With luck she'll stay there for a while.
As "Cairo Time" opens, Clarkson's character, Juliette, a Canadian magazine editor, has just landed in Egypt, where she plans to join her husband, Mark, a U.N official. At the airport, Juliette is met by Mark's old friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig), who informs Juliette that her husband has been delayed in Gaza. At large and more than a bit at sea, at first Juliette tries to navigate Cairo's chaotic and noisy streets on her own, but quickly learns that she'll need a guide. She calls on Tareq, and for the next few days the two explore the city and their own interior landscapes, which undergo tiny seismic shifts the longer they spend together.
As a portrait of a woman confronting foreign climes and mid-life changes, "Cairo Time" resembles a bigger, glossier movie in theaters right now. But as a heroine Juliette presents a far more enigmatic -- and, oddly, more recognizable -- protagonist than Julia Roberts's post-divorce pilgrim in "Eat Pray Love." As "Cairo Time" unfolds, with Juliette and Tareq taking leisurely ambles through the city or smoking hookah pipes in its coffeehouses, she begins to exude an unmistakable sense of longing, a feeling that Tareq -- a man of courtly restraint and old-fashioned decorum -- picks up on and responds to in kind.
Like Tokyo in "Lost in Translation," Cairo plays a role unto itself in "Cairo Time," which like that earlier film seems steeped in an ethereal, slightly dazed sense of dislocation. As Juliette embarks on her geographic and psychological journey, it's never clear where she's going or means to end up, which makes the film's most pivotal moment -- elegantly staged by Nadda in a hotel lobby and elevator -- all the more electrifying. With slow-burning emotion and finely calibrated performances from its two deeply attractive leads, "Cairo Time" pays lyrical tribute to the beauty and rue of brief encounters everywhere.
Contains mild thematic elements and smoking. In English and Arabic with English subtitles.