2020, NR, 84 min. Directed by Zeina Durra. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Michael Landes, Shereen Reda, Karim Saleh, Salima Ikram.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 20, 2020
An English woman arrives in Egypt. You can tell she's English, not simply by her accent but because the first four words out of her mouth are "thank you," twice. This is a return, a visit to old haunts: or rather, literally ancient ones. She is visiting Luxor, the ancient Egyptian city seen by outsiders as a tourist destination – and, it must be said, by the residents, who live with antiquity. That sense of history is what has brought her back, as she reunites with an old flame.
Both live with death, in very different ways. Hana (Riseborough) is a doctor with a humanitarian crisis organization, taking a break after an assignment in Yemen. She has seen horrors but the script never needs to explain them to the audience: Instead, she carries a textured, layered fragility. Hers is the strength of broken bones that have healed well but not necessarily straight. Sultan (Saleh) works on the other side of the veil of mortality: He is an archeologist, one of the many who make their living in the dust and tombs in the ancient temple complexes. It's been years since they were lovers, but neither has set all of those emotions aside.
There's an extraordinary immediacy to Luxor, born of director Durra's unromantic but loving view of the environment. Eschewing lazy tropes of crammed souks and the Sphinx's missing nose, this is Egypt as a confluence of nations over time. Multiple languages are spoken, but never subtitled or translated. Obscure, tiny tombs have as much modern life as a sleepy local restaurant. There is a care for past, as ancient artefacts are dug up with love and guests mourn the potential refurbishment of a venerable but faded hotel.
Luxor brings out yet another quietly inward-facing performance from Riseborough. Hana is the focus from the first moment in this quiet, delicate romance, but she is deliberately inscrutable. Riseborough transmits how the shattered Hana craves the giddy silliness of her link with Sultan without having to rely on dialogue about the traumas of warzone life. There's something breathtaking in how at ease Riseborough and the equally understated Saleh fall into the ways of old lovers, leaning in, nearly touching, each gingerly dodging hurting the other while knowing there are years of pain and loss somewhere in there. It feels so real, so immediate, and semi-improvised scenes with non-actors (such as distinguished Egyptologist Salima Ikram) reinforce the naturalism almost seamlessly. That's a greater challenge that is often appreciated, as such scenes can often highlight the actorly nature of performance.
History is not fixed, Luxor tells us, but changed by the present. It is not to be repeated, and cannot be revisited. All we can do is hope is that it is stable enough to be built upon.
Luxor is available now as a Virtual Cinema release.