Director Zeina Durra blends a few emotions and ideas into LUXOR, some of which may not register without some familiarity with the culture and history of the nearby ancient city. However, with a delicate and naturalistic performance at the centre from Andrea Riseborough, the film succeeds at painting a portrait of one of life’s pauses for thought; one of the strange stasis and emotions that develop when contemplating one’s life in a once-familiar place.
Hana (Riseborough), an aid worker, is on leave from her job and has chosen to return to Luxor for the week; a place where she once worked and had a relationship with Sultan (Karim Saleh). Hana stays at the Winter Palace Hotel (where Agatha Christia wrote Death on the Nile), visits the archaeological sites, and encounters new people. Still, her most valuable experience is reconnecting with Sultan in the face of impending life change.
LUXOR has an aesthetic that embraces the dusty and dry landscape of Southern Egypt. Zelmira Gainza ‘s cinematography has a faded and sun-kissed look throughout, as if looking at an old photograph. Hana’s (and, indeed, the film’s) contemplative activities suit this look and heightens the bleary pensiveness of Riseborough’s performance.
“The film captures the musing on one’s life that happens in the situations similar to the one Hana finds herself in. She is deeply familiar with her surroundings, yet it is not a return to a home, it is a return to a lapsed one.”
On the surface, it might be easy to draw parallels with tiresome ‘finding yourself’ dramas that make use of middle- and far-Eastern locales to generate a misplaced exoticism and drink from some perceived spiritual faucet. LUXOR, however, is a more intelligent, delicately positioned proposition than that. The film captures the musing on one’s life that happens in the situations similar to the one Hana finds herself in. She is deeply familiar with her surroundings, yet it is not a return to a home, it is a return to a lapsed one. Durra’s framing of Hana works to develop this, often placing her isolated and off-centre, with barriers between her and Sultan as they reminisce. The blocking of her encounters across the city also embraces this: she is tracked across interiors when strangers unexpectedly wrench her from the familiar people and places; her companions move out of frame before she does.
At times the film could do with a little more bite, to drag the story along with some momentum. Hana’s memories of war-torn locales she has seen – having worked in Syria recently – and her impending placement back amongst suffering has clearly dulled her vibrancy. This trauma is hinted at but the film doesn’t do much legwork to generate empathy for Hana. Though, the understated performance of Riseborough and the tone of the film are pitched to precisely that approach. The film doesn’t tug heartstrings overtly but, in real life, people rarely choose or need to.
LUXOR is perhaps too naturalistic to burrow its way into your thoughts long-term, but it does succeed in creating an atmosphere of reminiscence that is neither nostalgic nor rueful, and an image of past lives that is neither gilded nor tarnished.
LUXOR plays again at Sundance on Friday 31st January and Saturday February 1st.