Film Review: Cairo Time

What might have been a heady romantic summer vacation for filmgoers is instead a pallid, rather stale compendium of bits from old tearjerkers like <i>Summertime</i>, <i>Now, Voyager</i> and <i>Brief Encounter</i>, with pyramids in the background.

In Cairo for the first time, Juliet (Patricia Clarkson) awaits the arrival of her UN diplomat husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), who has been detained in Gaza, and, like those poor slobs in Bogie’s Casablanca, she waits and she waits. Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a tall, dark, handsome and Egyptian friend of Mark's, shows up at Mark's behest to keep her company. Guess what happens?

One thing is certainly evident here: Those daffy dames of the outrageously (and I think unfairly) maligned fun bit of fluff, Sex and the City 2, sure had a better time in the Middle East than Patricia Clarkson does here. One somehow cannot help but feel that much of it is her own fault. Juliet seems like a reasonably sophisticated, intelligent woman, so you wonder why she should be so incredibly surprised that she, a rather scantily clad white woman gadding about alone in a Muslim country, should attract so much attention, especially from avid men.

This rather stale culture clash forms much of the content of this trifle of a film, which seems to want to say big things about love and relationships, but never really gets off the ground. Clarkson has her requisite eye-opening moments with a hookah and suave Nile cruises, but never really blooms the way Katharine Hepburn did during her magical Venice sojourn in David Lean’s Summertime. There's no surprise and very little humor here, and from the hectic, grubby way it's been shot, even Cairo doesn't look very alluring.

Strong characterization is not writer-director Ruba Nadda's strong suit, and resultantly, few real sparks are struck romantically between Juliet and Tareq. Clarkson retains her usual common-sensical aura which has its appeal, but she is really not a sweepingly romantic heroine, being far more effective in tangy character roles. She reminds me of something Joseph Mankiewicz once said, rather cruelly, to Geraldine Fitzgerald, to the effect that she would always be brushing the leading lady's hair. ("Unsay that!" a horrified Fitzgerald reportedly screamed at him.) Clarkson is further undone in her big glamorous moment by an unflattering dress which has way too much décolletage for her own good. Siddig is a stock, gentlemanly lover out of backdated women's magazines, like Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager.

Nadda really balls things up with the eventual appearance of Juliet's husband, who is presented as such a dull doofus that we really don't care if her marriage is truly imperiled, the stakes being so obviously low. Meanwhile, naughty Juliet has broken her promise to him that they'd first see the pyramids together, by sneaking in a viewing with Tareq. This, one supposes, is meant to break the viewer's heart, but all I could think of was what a hoary Brief Encounter kind of gambit this is, and how much better it was done in that hysterically noble classic of romantic repression.