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Knight at the Movies: Cairo Time; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-08-18

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It's not for nothing that character actress Patricia Clarkson is known to film directors as their secret weapon—a fact noted in a recent New York Times profile of one of the best actresses working in the movies. Something in this plain-spoken, angularly beautiful actress with her comforting diction and warm eyes screams "Experience" every time she appears in a movie. There are myriad examples of Clarkson anchoring all sorts of movies—good and bad—elevating them with her quiet, inner dignity, and her gracious but firm approach. Shutter Island, Elegy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Lars and the Real Girl, Far From Heaven, Pieces of April, The Dying Gaul, No Reservations—the movie titles go on and on. Each has a certain feminine gravitas because of her presence.

Said gravitas takes center stage ( and is blissful to watch ) in writer-director Rubba Nadda's Cairo Time, which gives Clarkson her first starring role in a film that seems tailor-made for her intuitive talents. The movie's a romance but it's as subtle and nuanced as Clarkson's acting and is the polar opposite of both an over the top Hollywood mainstream romantic drama like Nights in Rodanthe or the sumptuous melodramatic flourishes of a foreign romantic film like I Am Love. Much more elusive in its approach, Cairo Time is nevertheless rewarding for fans of restrained cinema; those with an ear and an eye for detail. This is a film where the promise of romance is almost as important as the romance itself. And perceptively gliding through it, Clarkson and her intricate yet simple approach is a quiet sensation.

Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, a magazine writer who journeys to Cairo, Egypt, in order to spend time with her elusive husband Mark, who works for the United Nations and is hard to track down because of his clandestine job. Her expectations are dashed immediately upon her arrival when she is met at the airport by Mark's former associate, Tareq ( Alexander Siddig, of Syriana ) , who has returned to living in Cairo after a work stint in the couple's hometown in New York.

But Juliette quickly adjusts, and it's clear almost immediately that this is a pattern that has been repeated many times in the past. As the days go by, Juliette sets out to explore the teeming metropolis that is Cairo. She avoids the looming pyramids—having promised to see those first with Mark—and her loneliness and isolation are palpable ( all the more after her brief encounters with strangers and Mark's work acquaintances ) . Seemingly on a whim, she seeks out Tareq, who is playing chess in a men's-only coffee bar and, slowly, something more than friendship takes hold. It's a very sedate courtship—they share a hookah, play chess and drink specially brewed coffee. He buys her a cartouche. But once he proclaims, "Juliet, here we believe in fate," his feelings for her are out of the bag. Just as things appear about to go to the next level, fate, indeed, intervenes.

The dirty, filthy Cairo—an insanely dense city of 17 million people—is not exactly a city that I would choose to fall in love in. It's the polar opposite of Venice, the setting for another interrupted romantic movie, David Lean's lush Summertime. Yet Nadda manages to find peaceful corners for the duo to play out their elliptical romance, we get gorgeous desert sunsets and, of course, those mystical, visually powerful pyramids always seem to loom at the corner of the shots, calling to the pair. It would hardly be fair to label Cairo Time, with its chaste, fractured love affair, an intensely romantic film but it's elusive loveliness weaves a bit of a spell, nevertheless—thanks to Clarkson's Juliette and Siddig, her strikingly handsome Romeo. A quasi-classical, piano based score by Niall Byrne certainly helps set the mood as well.

Film notes:

—If the names Sally Rand, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans and Gypsy Rose Lee ring a bell then Behind the Burly Q—a look back at the sexy, sultry era of the art of striptease known as burlesque—is the documentary for you. Lensed by Leslie Zemeckis, wife of Hollywood director Robert, the movie promises a treasure trove of historical footage, photographs, and survivor reminisces. The documentary opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, on Friday, Aug. 20, in conjunction with Chicago's striptease festival, Superstars of Burlesque. Zemeckis will be present for audience discussion following the Friday and Saturday evening screenings opening weekend. See www.siskelfilmcenter.org .

—The Red Machine is a rather offbeat heist thriller set in 1935 San Francisco that straddles deadpan comedy and a straight-ahead crime drama ( no, really ) . Co-written and directed by Stephanie Argy and Alec Bohm, it opens Friday, Aug. 20 at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton. The low-budget film artfully recreates the vintage period it emulates ( think '30s Warner Bros. gangster movies ) and has a rather fetching, mostly male cast ( love those men in their uniforms! ) that will help put it in the plus column for LGBT film audiences. See www.facets.org .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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