Dir: Zeina Durra. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Michael Landes. 12A cert, 85 mins
A tour guide at the Temple of Ramses III, on the west bank of the Nile, directs the attention of her group to a battle frieze, commemorating the Pharaoh’s victory over the Sea Peoples in 1178 BC. “What this represents for us is our own inner demons,” she extrapolates. Hearing this, an Englishwoman on her own, slight and blonde with a pale blue baseball cap, steps forward to contemplate this mass of faded relief, which fills the frame except for her own dwarfed figure.
This is Hana (Andrea Riseborough), and we deduce from the shot that the inner demon thing strikes some serious chords with her. She’s holidaying in Luxor, staying in five-star luxury at the Winter Palace Hotel, having recently finished a stint of aid work in the Middle East. The film is reticent about both her romantic past and professional life – we’re reminded she’s a doctor when a fellow tourist collapses from heat exhaustion, and she intervenes.
What we do know is that, once, she was in love with Sultan (Karim Saleh), a handsome archaeologist who happens to be in Egypt on a dig, and spots her to his delight – perhaps hers too, though it’s harder to tell – on the cross-Nile ferry one day. They arrange to spend some time together, and while the conversations leave important things unbroached, we watch the slow rekindling of something between them.
It’s slow, because Hana is such a mysteriously sad, solitary person, who seems to be hiding herself away from Sultan, the audience, and everyone else. Before these two have reconnected, there’s a brash American in her hotel, played by Michael Landes, with whom she has a furtive one-night stand, slipping out as he sleeps. Spotting him mouthing off in the lobby a day or two later, she ducks around a corner to avoid interacting.
At least she’s picked a sight-seeing destination – with all of its ranged columns and stony burial chambers – that makes hiding quite straightforward. The writer-director, Zeina Durra, dispenses nuggets of history at each site the pair visit, having them shoot the breeze with local acquaintances. We’re asked to intuit things about the ruins of a civilisation and the secret recesses of Hana’s soul, often just from her curiosity about a carving, or the way the camera captures her back as she recedes. She probably has fewer words in the film than some of the unnamed guides: as we guess at the source of her drifting melancholy, almost all of our clues are based on body language.
Luxor has the outline of something special, with its traces of Antonioni-esque ennui, its watercolour palette, its expressive use of architecture. It also has Riseborough, a consistently impressive actress still waiting for more film roles that deserve her.
You spend the film waiting right by her side. Durra daubs Hana’s solitude without successfully illuminating it. A complete character never shows up – not even when she over-drinks in the hotel’s lounge bar, treating Sultan to an out-of-nowhere dance routine he’s too embarrassed even to watch.
The filmmaking glides around with a kind of air-conditioned ease – it errs on the chic side. All the English dialogue from the supporting cast has a non-professional ring, as if we’re halfway to a documentary travelogue, but this only renders Hana, in her poetic abstraction, all the more aloof. In a rare moment of comic friction, an officious hotel employee ticks Sultan off for swimming in his boxers. The scene stands out more than it should, an intrusive splash of life in cool, still waters.
On VOD from November 6