Another stellar performance from indie-film stalwart Patricia Clarkson provides the main reason to see "Cairo Time," wherein Clarkson's happily married magazine editor falls in love with her husband's former bodyguard as he escorts her through the bustling Egyptian capital during a hot November.
The relationship's myriad constraints are matched by Clarkson's exquisitely interior turn as Juliette Grant, a middle-aged Canadian woman who seems to be holding years of unexpressed emotion within her slow-moving and slender frame.
While this walking-and-talking romance makes some urgent stops, chiefly at an Israeli checkpoint, the mood remains predominantly light and airy, befitting the privileged vacation that Juliette expects to take with her husband, Mark, but comes to enjoy with another man instead.
Bereft of companionship in Cairo while her hubby is stuck in war-torn Gaza managing U.N. refugee camps, Juliette wiles away days with handsome Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a coffeeshop owner who introduces her to boating on the Nile, smoking apple-flavored shisha from water pipes, and clapping along to music at a traditional Egyptian wedding.
Another thing this purportedly sophisticated woman learns is to cover her head with a scarf when walking the Cairo streets, lest she be the object of stares and leers from local men who seem to see her as an easy mark. Juliette gravitates to her gallant guide not only because he rescues her from oncoming traffic, but because in conversation he has an easy way of making her feel safe and special in a culture that's foreign to her.
Like Tareq, "Cairo Time" proves hard to resist, the film's familiarity gradually giving way to a playfulness that feels new to the impossible-love subset of bourgeois melodrama.
Clarkson ("High Art," "The Station Agent") toys expertly with the possibility that prim and proper Juliette will drop her defenses, giving the film a measure of mild suspense that pays off beautifully after about an hour. Alas, all Siddig has to offer are his good looks, which pale beside those of Cairo -- the movie's third and most visually stunning lead.
With the white desert, the pyramids of Giza and Clarkson, writer/director Ruba Nadda has more than enough at hand to carry "Cairo Time" through its duller stretches. For Juliette, an unexpectedly long stay in Cairo provides a pleasant diversion, just as the movie does for us.