Cairo Time

Laura Clifford 
Cairo Time

Robin Clifford 

Women's magazine writer Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson, "Shutter Island") arrives in the Middle East to meet her husband, a U.N. organizer working in Gaza, for a vacation but instead is met by Tareq (Alexander Siddig, "Syriana," "24's" Season 6), his former security officer and friend.  As she comes to realize that Mark's (Tom McCamus, "The Claim") detainment may last more than a few days, Juliette begins to venture out on her own, but when she encounters some trouble she turns to Tareq, who is more than happy to be with her in "Cairo Time."

This languid love story offers nothing new, but its wonderful acting, stunning scenery and subtle cultural clashes are all that is needed here.  The setting and star Clarkson were enough to bring me on board, but the real surprise is dashing character actor Siddig, who makes for a seriously sexy leading man.

Juliette is taken aback by the reactions of Egyptian men to a bare-headed blond alone on the streets of Cairo and while, at her age flattered, she is also intimidated.  She attends Mark's embassy party alone and meets Kathryn (Elena Anaya, "Van Helsing," "Savage Grace"), who takes Juliette out to the White Desert, where she is charmed by some of Kathryn's Egyptian friends and a real home.  She buys a pale blue hijab to cover her hair and wonders alone through Cairo's Mosque-Madrassa but without Mark, Juliette is still adrift, and so she makes her way to the retired Tareq's coffee shop.

Clearly intrigued by Juliette, whom he thinks is very beautiful, Tareq becomes a gentleman tour guide, taking her on Nile cruises, throughout the winding streets of Cairo and even to the Alexandria wedding of Jameelah (Mona Hala), daughter of his widowed former flame Yasmeen (Amina Annabi).  There are tense moments, such as Tareq's prickly reaction to Juliette's musings on Egyptian street children and her attempted bus excursion to Gaza, which not only leaves her stranded, but which casts her as the go-between in a dangerous love affair.  But there are more tender and amusing ones.  To the delight of his all male customers, Juliette beats Tareq at a game of chess.  He finds her naturally enthusiastic reaction to a popular Arabian female singer and the smoking of water pipes endearing, even while her liberal views on Egyptian class distinctions frustrates him.  Her promise to Mark to not visit the pyramids without him, though, is, in Cairo, tourism's version of a chastity belt.

Canadian/Syrian writer/director Ruba Nadda's film is all about beauty and subtlety, quiet and unspoken communications.  This is not the first time an exotic location and man turned the head of a Western woman in film, nor the first time that experience caused self exploration, but what is different here is that neither of these people are looking for this.  In fact, Juliette is a happily married woman and Tareq the friend of Mark made responsible for her safety.  This, and the denial of those pyramids, make this attraction bubble below the surface and Clarkson and Siddig's chemistry, the delights and disapprovals shared between them, spark.  These two actors do a lot with little dialogue.  Clarkson looks sleepy upon arrival, fitting for jet lag, but the slower pace of the new location makes her movements trancelike. Hers is a physically graceful performance, matching Siddig's litheness, especially when in his galabeya (watch his slightly indignant reaction to 'I like your dress,' in which the actor conveys confusion, annoyance and the polite desire to educate).  Tom McCamus has a very small part in the film as Mark, not appearing until near film's end, but he is able to convey decades of a happy marriage and why it works.

"Cairo Time" is much more satisfying than Sally Potter's overworked "Yes," in which an Irish woman and man from Beirut clashed over religion, science and gender as they fell in love, the emotions here feeling more earned.  Nadda has written a conclusion that is perfection, a balance of what is right and wrong for these characters.  It is a lyrical, bittersweet exploration of new sensations in an unfamiliar place.


Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) arrives in Cairo for a romantic vacation with her husband but is disappointed when Mark (Tom McCamus) is not at the airport to greet her. In his stead is Tareq (Alexander Siddig), his old friend and former colleague, now retired. UN-employed Mark was called away before his vacation with his wife could even begin because of outbursts at a Palestinian refugee camp. Left on her own in a strange land with different cultures and customs, she must learn how to adjust to “Cairo Time.”

Montreal-born director-scribe Ruba Nadda combines a gentle romance with a brilliantly shot travelogue that smoothly and elegantly builds its love story in unexpected ways. Juliette spends the first half of the film as a stranger in a strange land. She quickly learns that her blond tresses are the subject of fascination, almost menacingly so, by the local men who join in following her. Clarkson makes the panic Juliette feels, as the men jostle her, palpable, as does her relief when an old gentleman comes to her rescue. Juliette spends her time fitting in to the Muslim culture with just a little help from Tareq. The first half is also when you are shown the beauty and mystery of the film’s locale, Cairo, Egypt.

The second half focuses on the budding relationship between Juliette and Tareq. Husband Mark calls her, infrequently, and keeps saying he cannot come to her, yet, because of his pressing, off-screen, UN duties. More and more, she spends her time with unmarried Tareq as he shows her the real Cairo. Slowly, sweetly they become friends, then something more and flirt with an unanticipated romance. Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig are wonderful together and I found myself hoping that Mark would never show up, their chemistry is that good.

Techs are superb with Cairo proving a character unto itself and never looking more beautiful. I know, I have been there and it is a thrill to see this exotic city in all of its glory, thanks, too, to Luc Montpellier’s expert eye behind the camera. You live “Cairo Time” through the eyes of Juliette and it is an education. Customs and mores of the Muslim faith are painlessly taught to the western viewer. The Muslim call to prayer, something I find both beautiful and mesmerizing, is given ample attention, a detail I appreciate.

“Cairo Time” is not a chick flick. Of course, it will draw, as it should, femme auds, but the story is so well crafted, the acting so spot on and the locale so spellbinding, this beautifully crafted artwork is a little gem. I give it a B+.
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