Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time feels a little bit like a hybrid of two David Lean pictures—Brief Encounter (1945) and Summertime (1955)—with a Cairo, Egypt background. It certainly has elements of both Lean films, but it’s more of a tentative encounter than a brief one. It’s also a movie with a story that’s told more in facial expressions and body language than in dialogue. It’s leisurely to a fault, and it could almost be said that nothing much happens. At the same time, that nothing is in the hands of two extremely fine actors, neither of whom often get to play leads: Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. That—and the simple fact that middle-aged romance is so rarely explored in any serious fashion—makes the film more notable than it might otherwise be.
The story is little more than a situation. Juliette Grant (Clarkson) comes to Cairo to be with her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), who works for the United Nations. She arrives to find he’s been held up elsewhere owing to some kind of uprising (it doesn’t really matter) and his ex-security officer Tareq Khalifa (Siddig) fetches Juliette from the airport. As Mark continues to be absent, Tareq shows Juliette around the city and serves as her protector. By degrees, the two become increasingly friendly—a situation that both attracts and alarms Juliette. That is pretty much all the story there is. The movie simply follows the pair during the time they’re in this situation. Under many conditions and with other actors, this would be negligible at best and torturous at worst, but here it manages to work.
What makes Cairo Time work stems from the playing of the leads and the manner in which Nadda presents the setting. Nearly everything about their growing attraction to each other is conveyed in a look or a touch, the expression in the eyes. Little of note is expressed verbally. The Cairo setting is handled in the same way. Except for a trip to the pyramids, there’s no feel of a travelogue to the movie. The pair are simply photographed in their surroundings—strange to her, familiar to him—so that it becomes a part of the film. The camera never resorts to showing off the sights. The sights are like the characters. They don’t announce who or what they are.
Patricia Clarkson will be familiar to indie and art-film fans, but she can also be seen right down the hall from Cairo Time at The Carolina playing Emma Stone’s mother in the very mainstream Easy A. Earlier this year, she was in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but leads are usually outside her realm. It’s interesting that when she gets one here, she shows off by being as subtle as possible. Alexander Siddig, on the other hand, is one of those actors you know you’ve seen before, but aren’t entirely sure where. (Fans of TV’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine probably have a better handle on him.) His quiet intensity makes him a perfect match for Clarkson. This is one case where it’s very true that casting is at least half the battle.
Make no mistake, this is a small-scale character study of a movie. It’s about as far from “action-packed” as you’re likely to get. There’s no real payoff—apart from one of realization and resignation. Know this going in or you’re very likely to be disappointed. But if you do understand what it is and are up for it, the film will reward you. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and smoking.