Luxor’s protagonist is not on holiday, she is on leave. This may sound like semantics but the distinction is important: where the former suggests recreational pleasures, the latter implies departure. During her sojourn in the film’s titular Egyptian city, Hana (a subdued Andrea Riseborough) is escaping the horrors of her job as a surgeon on a war-trauma unit on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Her time off from work is a salve to the pain she has witnessed. The movie unfolds at a loose, meandering pace, capturing Hana’s plodding steps towards self-restoration. Luxor is a contemplative character study: a subtle, human exploration of the wounds inflicted by military conflict, and the tentative efforts to heal them.
Quiet, pensive films like this – that give more sway to atmosphere than action – live and die by the strength of their lead performances. Riseborough is more than up to the task, communicating so much with so little dialogue. She wears a wounded expression as she shuffles around ancient ruins, seemingly carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders; her eyes are forever clouded with unspeakable secrets (Luxor, much to its credit, never indulges in gratuitous flashbacks to her wartime interventions, leaving the details to our imagination). The writer-director Zeina Durra emphasises Hana’s solitude with the camera, which consistently frames her alone, whether trundling along in taxis, disembarking from boats or sitting on park benches.
There is, however, a strong sense of separateness even when she is with other people. On one guided tour, she finds herself side by side with a family who chatter among themselves in Mandarin while she watches on, uncomprehending. Durra hints at Hana’s mental state with the lightest of touches, gently probing at it before stepping back, trusting Riseborough to deliver the required emotional beats. In less capable hands, the movie, with its focus on a white woman travelling in the Middle East, could well have tipped into a culturally appropriative Eat Pray Love pastiche. Durra, who is of Arab descent, puts all fears to rest on that count, depicting Luxor as a living, breathing metropolis. Amusingly, her script ridicules a US tourist for his inability to conceive of Egypt without the Western comfort of a Death on the Nile reference.
It is not this boorish American who disrupts Hana’s solitude, but her old flame Sultan (a sensitive Karim Saleh). Once again, the film-maker avoids a potential pitfall here, ensuring that the central figure’s salvation does not come in the form of romance (as happens all too often in cinema). Sultan’s presence primarily serves to underline what we already know of Hana’s underlying trauma. She initially suffers memory loss and fails to understand his allusions to their shared past. Her selfhood has been splintered to the extent that she is unable to recollect their happy days together, her own experiences slipping through her fingers like sand grains.
Riseborough and Saleh’s palpable chemistry charges their scenes with electricity. There is an uneasiness to their reunion, since Hana is so reluctant to make physical contact with him, refusing to take his proffered jumper on a chilly evening and stiffly greeting him before their sightseeing trips. Durra builds the sexual tension between her characters by holding our gaze on sequences of abbreviated intimacy just a fraction longer than is comfortable. The director plays out an almost kiss – heads tilted, bodies close, Sultan leaning in with trepidation – for excruciating seconds, heightening the expectation then cutting away before their lips touch. Hana mostly keeps Sultan at arm’s length, which allows her to chisel away the distance she has constructed between them on her own time.
There is no aha moment that ‘solves’ Hana in Luxor. Sometimes she lets her guard down (laughing, smiling, dancing manically by herself), but just as quickly draws it back up. She takes each day as it comes, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. Such emotional instability compromises the clean lines of her character arc, and serves to more authentically present the disarming unpredictability of trauma. Luxor compassionately examines how one woman finds the strength to mend her broken spirit; in the face of the all too harrowing realities of 2020, this celebration of resilience couldn’t be more inspiring.
‘Luxor’ will be released in select cinemas, and will available to stream online, from Friday.
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