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Review: Cairo Time

Patricia Clarkson takes a slow trip up the Nile

The soft-spoken romance Cairo Time initially seems to offer an Egyptian vacation to get away from it all — or at least, to escape from the privileged self-absorption of Eat Pray Love. Both films depict female American journalists who rekindle their sensuality and re-evaluate their unsatisfying marriages while swanning about in an exotic hemisphere.

At first glance, Cairo Time takes the advantage from Eat Pray Love by offering an actual plot. Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) arrives in Cairo with plans to meet her husband, a United Nations worker, only to discover that he's been indefinitely delayed at a refugee camp in Gaza. Juliette finds a friendly Egyptian guide in Tareq (Syriana's Alexander Siddig), a former colleague of her husband who now owns a café that offers "the best coffee in Cairo." Feeling lonely in her tasteful hotel but accosted by men when unattended on the street, Juliette increasingly relies on Tareq for companionship.

Cairo Time's slow-boiling, will-they-or-won't-they suspense finds a complication in the reappearance of Tareq's old fame (Amina Annabi), a sexy widow who invites them both to her daughter's wedding. Juliette encourages Tareq to pursue his old friend, but clearly feels tempted by Tareq himself. The wedding reception scene provides a window to a more secular, carefree view of Arabic women than Juliette finds in Cairo's streets.

Juliette and Tareq maintain a charming, courtly interplay in which their mutual attraction goes largely unspoken, and Arab-Canadian writer/director Ruba Nadda conveys Cairo's mix of ancient dignity and Third World hustle. Nevertheless, the normally irresistible Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette as so suppressed and emotionally contained, she doesn't engage with the viewer very much, and you become all too aware of the film's languid pace and uneventful narrative.

If Clarkson's emotions prove too opaque, Cairo Time's symbolism is too obvious. Not only is the protagonist named "Juliette" and interested in a man from a different culture, at one point she sits on a hotel balcony to regard the city from above. Later, Juliette takes a hit off Tareq's hookah and remarks that it tastes like apple, just like Adam and Eve's fateful fruit.

Cairo Time presents a positive image of American-Arabic relations, in the way it shows a sheltered Westerner find a comfort level in a Muslim community. Juliette goes from being an awkward intruder at Tareq's all-male coffeehouse to a respected chess contender. The experience of watching the film, however, is less like floating up the Nile than drifting off to sleep.