(2009) Romance (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi, Andrew Cullen, Mona Hala, Fadia Nadda. Directed by Ruba Nadda
The allure of a foreign city, particularly one whose culture is very different from our own, beckons to many of us in an insistent way. Who hasn’t daydreamed of being adrift in an exotic city, swept away by romance?
Juliette (Clarkson) is a fashion magazine editor who arrives in Cairo expecting to meet her husband, a U.N. worker. Unfortunately, he’s been detained by trouble on the Gaza Strip and sends his friend Tariq (Siddig) to fetch her at the airport and look after her while he’s away.
Tariq does show Juliette around, although not to the pyramids which she is saving for Mark (McCamus), her husband. However she is made aware of the sweet intoxication that is Cairo – sunset boat rides on the Nile, shopping in open air bazaars, dancing at Egyptian weddings, playing chess in a coffee house – mostly with Tariq at her side.
As the day pile up and Mark is still a no-show, Juliette’s loneliness becomes palpable and she is drawn by the handsome and elegant Tariq. She becomes enamored of the music of Umm Kulthum which she runs into in several places in Cairo. This all leads her to the realization that she is attracted to a man who isn’t her husband. Is it her loneliness that drives her, or is it simply Cairo, seducing Juliette with its romance and charm?
At the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, this film won the award for Best Canadian Film at the event, which may surprise given its setting in Egypt. Director Ruba Nadda visited Cairo as a young girl and the impressions were indelible; she was moved to make this film years later, and it’s certainly very kind to the Egyptian capital. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier delivers breathtaking images of the capital with the Pyramids towering majestically in the distance, as well as intimate shots of crowded Cairo streets. I’m sure the Cairo Tourist Board has the warm fuzzies for this film.
Nadda’s smartest move was casting Clarkson and Siddig. Clarkson is an actress who often gets overlooked when the discussion of great actresses of our generation is underway, but she is certainly that. She is expressive without saying a word, relying on her face and her eyes to get across information pages of dialogue never could.
She plays Juliette with the courtliness and elegance of a Southern belle, minus the accent. One would say the performance is mannered, but Juliette is like many refined women of my age and older – possessed of an inner grace and charm that comes from manners and wisdom. Yet, she is lonely, the long hours separated from her husband taking their toll. Her children are grown, her job consumes her and she can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more to life.
Into this mix comes Tariq and Siddig is perfectly cast in the role. Handsome and elegant, he carries himself with the exotic romantic charm of Omar Sharif mixed with the honesty and directness of Gregory Peck. As you can tell by my comparisons, this is an old school performance of the highest order. The two make a wonderful couple, dancing around a growing attraction that to Nadda’s credit doesn’t happen suddenly, but subtly over a period of time. It grows organically and becomes realistic in that sense.
However, the plot is paper-thin and there isn’t much substance here. This is a romance novel on film in many ways, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, the pacing is so languid and the mood so gentle that the movie seems to lack passion, which I’m a bit ambivalent about. On the one hand, I think it works better that Juliette and Tariq are not leaping into bed and exchanging smoldering looks; on the other hand, the movie doesn’t affect you as strongly because of it. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but I think in the long run Nadda made the right choice; there are plenty of movies out there with all the passion you could want.
I loved the charm of this movie and the beauty of its cinematography. It’s all the more poignant now, given events in Cairo going on as this is being published. I’m not sure the Cairo of this movie will exist once events are played out but something tells me that it will; a city that has seen the rise and fall of Pharaohs, the coming and going of the British will be around long after all of us are gone. But even if Cairo is inevitably changed, a fleeting moment of its allure is captured here for all time.
WHY RENT THIS: Beautiful Egyptian vistas capture the romance of Cairo but also the traffic and noise of a major metropolis. Clarkson elevates every movie she does.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a film as wispy as gossamer with little substance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are elements of marital infidelity and some smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Siddig is playing an Egyptian, he is actually from the Sudan, born of an English mother. He is best known as Dr. Julian Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four short films by director Ruba Nadda, as well as a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably broke even or thereabouts.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Black Swan