▶︎ Luxor is available in virtual UK cinemas via Modern Films.
London-born writer-director Zeina Durra made her feature debut 10 years ago with The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, a romantic drama in which an artist’s pursuit of a romance in Manhattan is in conflict with her connection to violent events in Beirut, where her friends and political sympathies lead her. In this belated follow-up, Durra explores a similar tension between the pursuit of individual happiness and an all-too acute awareness of violent horrors in the wider world.
The film’s setting is the archaeological digs and touristic ruins of Egypt, and its narrative method is excavation. Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a deceptively serene woman of around 40 who arrives for a holiday at the Winter Palace hotel in Luxor. She’s a medic, an aid worker who has been traumatised by her work on the frontlines of inhumanity – facts that are held back for as long as possible.
Buried beneath her recent, paralysing trauma are the memories of a youthful affair with Egyptian archaeologist Sultan (Karim Saleh). Hana recalls their romance only in the negative. She knows that she would be heartbroken to see pictures of him on Facebook “on a beach, in Dubai, with kids”, but she can’t remember the details of their trip to Abydos, taken when they were in love in their early twenties.
Memories of her happiness are as painful, and as carefully compartmentalised, as her war-zone traumas – she ruefully describes herself as old and “broken”. But of course, she meets Sultan again, and his patient pursuit of her may help her to reconnect with her lost innocence, her capacity for joy.
Riseborough is something of a thrill to watch as the film’s central case-study cum protagonist. At one point she dances herself into an emotional breakdown, an extended sequence of manic pogoing and yoga poses that leave her exhausted, looking for once as completely drained as she feels.
Enigmatic title-cards punctuate the film, like the chapter-headings in silent serials that advertise thrilling adventures to come – though here it’s a discussion of Freud, a location or a reference to the Grateful Dead. A documentary tone is enhanced by supporting performances naturalistic to the point of awkwardness. Egyptologist Salima Ikram advised on the film and appears as more or less herself, helpfully glossing artefacts and ancient history. The use of the hotel location – the colonial outpost where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile – is pointedly based in fact too. The lovers explore its corners, and Sultan frets that it will lose its charm in a coming refurb.
An apparently slight, but deeply rewarding film, Luxor reveals its purpose slowly, in fragments of growing significance.
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