Sometimes, Judge Clark Douglas loves to cover his food in corn syrup. He calls it Karo Time.
An adventure of the heart.
Patricia Clarkson (Good Night, and Good Luck) has been one of cinema's most reliable supporting players for the past 20 years or so, but rarely has she received a prominent leading role. Cairo Time places Clarkson in the spotlight and gives her an opportunity to shine, but is the film worthy of her talents?
Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, a New York fashion editor whose husband Mark (Tom McCamus, The Sweet Hereafter) works for the United Nations. Mark spends a good deal of his time in the Middle East, but Juliette's job has long prevented her from being able to pay a visit to that part of the world. At long last, she gets the opportunity to do so. When she arrives in Cairo, she is greeted by her husband's associate Tareq (Alexander Siddig, Clash of the Titans) and informed that Mark is dealing with an urgent political crisis for the next few weeks. In the interim time, Tareq has agreed to serve as Juliette's guide and companion.
As the days pass, Juliette begins to realize that her idea of Cairo is much different from the reality of the place. She begins to adapt to the region's cultural idiosyncrasies, ponders what she can do to help make things better and attempts to explore parts of the culture that few people seem willing to explain. Though she loves her husband, Juliette also begins to develop feelings for Tareq, and he begins to have similar feelings towards her. Will their mutual loyalty to Mark prevent them from indulging their feelings, or will their passions overtake them?
The back of the Cairo Time DVD case claims that this is a film, "In the tradition of Brief Encounter and Lost in Translation." That's true to the extent that it has a similarly subdued tone and that it covers similar thematic territory, but it lacks the resonance of those movies. It isn't a bad film by any means—indeed, it comes as a breath of fresh air in a time when cinema has little use for understated romances—but when the film concludes and its dreamy air of culture-clash romanticism fades away, there's not much left to chew on. Essentially, the whole thing feels a bit slight.
The best element of the film is unquestionably the Patricia Clarkson performance, which would be a sure-fire Oscar nominee if it were in a stronger movie. It's a slightly different sort of role for the actress, as Juliette tends to be a bit more delicate and less steady than most Clarkson characters. She's not a cartoonish flibbertigibbet by any stretch of the imagination, but there's oh-so-gentle humor to be found in the way she portrays an outsider who is less than well informed: "I think I'll write a piece on the plight of Egyptian street children," she says after meeting two young waifs. Tareq smiles and rolls his eyes. It's easy to tell that Juliette wants very much to be accepted as an intelligent, culturally sensitive individual, and it's touching to see her quietly kicking herself when she falls short of that standard. This is all handled with such sublime subtlety; a lesser actress than Clarkson would have been incapable of drawing out so much unspoken depth.
Though the film is promoted as a romance, that part plays less of a role than one might suspect. Again, almost everything in this department develops below the surface, as all of the dialogue scenes between Clarkson and Siddig (in an impressively even-handed performance that plays very well against Clarkson's slightly whimsical turn) remain entirely platonic. There are glimmers of romance that start to appear as the film progresses along with one scene that is legitimately passionate, but none of this is ever openly acknowledged. The manner in which writer/director Ruba Nadda handles the climax of this story is genuinely masterful; a brilliant touch in a film that's merely good for much of its running time.
The DVD transfer is satisfactory enough, though it's certainly not the best I've ever seen. The level of detail is what suffers the most, as certain sweeping shots of Cairo don't quite pack the punch they ought to. Still, blacks are reasonably deep and the image is never bad. The audio is solid as well, though this is a very low-key track for the most part (dominated by dialogue and a lovely Niall Byrne score). Supplements include an audio commentary with Nadda, a Q&A with Nadda, Siddig and Clarkson from the Toronto Film Festival (25 minutes), an inferior alternate ending (3 minutes), a making-of featurette (7 minutes), a theatrical trailer and a collection of short films by Nadda: "Aadan" (8 minutes), "Do Nothing" (4 minutes), "Laila" (5 minutes), and "Slut" (4 minutes).
Cairo Time is a decent little film with a great Clarkson performance, but it's just missing that elusive "something" that could have taken it from a worthy rental to a must-own title. Still, it's a respectable effort from Ms. Nadda and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
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