'Cairo Time' a masterful look at repressed romance
Constance Droganes, entertainment writer, CTV.ca
Published Saturday, October 10, 2009 8:43AM EDT
Repressed passions stir the air in "Cairo Time," Ruba Nadda's sumptuous new tale about two strangers who struggle with attraction.
Actress Patricia Clarkson stirs this illicit pot with electric ease.
Clarkson, Nadda and co-star Alexander Siddig serve up something here that could easily be called a chick flick.
Don't sell "Cairo Time" so short.
There are no flavour-of-the-month faces here. No bonehead story lines, indigestible camp or stale clich�s.
What Clarkson and company do deliver is a finely-drawn, grown-up look at an age-old question: "Should I or shouldn't I?"
Set against the sun-drenched bustle of Cairo's streets, magazine editor Juliette (Clarkson) arrives to join Mark, her Canadian diplomat husband (Tom McCamus).
To her dismay, escalating tensions in Palestinian territories keep Mark stranded in Gaza and Juliette stuck in a hotel waiting for his return.
Nadda wisely keeps the camera on Juliette's resigned face. Slowly and steadily, she hints at something stirring behind Juliette's luminous, cornflower blue eyes as she scans Cairo from the safety of her balcony.
Of course, that deliberate pacing might annoy those who like their action fast and their noise meter cranked way past the decibel on "Transformers 1 or 2."
But, look past this devoted wife's still, 40-something exterior and you intuit a swell of unhappiness churning inside Juliette's head and heart.
Suddenly, the enigma that Juliette is comes careening towards us. Is she happily married? Is her husband having an affair? Is Juliette about to crack?
The subtle subtext that Clarkson plays so well gives this elegant, secretly-sorrowed woman a sense of mystery that rivals Egypt's pyramids.
Whatever is going on inside in her mind, we're stuck to Juliette like white on rice -- much like her husband's former employee, Tareq (Alexander Siddig).
Tired of waiting, Juliette invites this lanky looker to show her Cairo.
Tareq's the perfect gentleman: Kind, attentive and protective, as well, when the local men swarm Juliette at the first sight of her milky skin and long-flaxen hair.
His attraction to the boss' wife, however, is right there in Siddig's big, sea-green orbs.
Ditto for Juliette.
There, amidst those silent walks and intimate meals they share together, the pair's unspoken passion for one another pounds the screen.
Will Juliette stray? Can Mark's honorable friend control himself? The tensions build with nothing more than a stroke of a hand or a lingering look.
Have audiences forgotten how good that can be? Not so judging by the film's reception at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I personally sat in a row filled with men and women of all ages at the film's premiere. They applauded the fact that two ordinary people did a seemingly extraordinary thing by Hollywood's "more is more" standards: They just said no.
It's not a decision that comes easily. In fact, one of "Cairo Time's" most electric moments comes when Tareq takes one bold step towards Juliette in her hotel room. She skittishly recoils, then steps towards him and smiles, "Let's go."
That's not code for "Hey, let's jump into the sack." Not by a long shot.
In an act that signals just how much she feels for this man, Juliette takes Tareq to the pyramids -- a trip she had been saving to share with husband. If that doesn't say I want you, what does?
We never really know if Juliette regrets choosing her marriage over that "over-the-moon" love Tareq awakens her to.
But, in an age where every thought, feeling and body part is out there for everyone to see, Nadda does something daring with "Cairo Time."
She bravely revisits a style of romantic filmmaking that has not been seen since "Brief Encounter," David Lean's 1945 classic. The end result is moving, modern and visually stunning even by Lean's standards.
As for Clarkson, who came to this film after playing a Southern belle-turned-artiste in Woody Allen's comedy, "Whatever Works," Juliette screams to the world that there is no one like her working in Hollywood today.
Once Shakespeare's star-crossed Juliet filled my memory banks. Now Clarkson's Juliette lingers there too - as does "Cairo Time's" welcome reminder that less is more.
Three stars out of four