Andrea Riseborough plays a British aid worker holed up in a hotel in the titular city in this contemplative romance from Zeina Durra
Even the most beautiful places can fail to resonate when you've lost all sense of who you are. Such is the plight of Hana, a British aid worker who has found herself in the open-air museum that is Luxor, Egypt. It's also the magical and mysterious city that gifts writer-director Zeina Durra's film with its enigmatic title. Her Luxor is a meditative, dreamy wisp of middle-aged abroadness that plays out like a cross between Sofia Coppola and Joanna Hogg – though it is content to give fewer answers than either.
Andrea Riseborough – less frenetic than her usual roles seem to allow – plays a surgeon who almost appears to have come to Luxor by accident. Less holiday, more the result of a choice made mid-sleepwalk, she has returned, unknowingly, to a place that might have once meant something to her. She's back from a war zone near the Syrian Border, and so has the air of somebody in a permanent state of shock. Emotions are muted and minimal, buried beneath the surface until the cracks begin to show. Conversations with fellow guests go nowhere; interactions with locals fizzle out.
While Hana might not be able to appreciate Luxor's breathtaking scenery, Durra understands that audiences are likely to relish the opportunity. This is a movie that feels like its title. As Hana crosses the Nile by boat, visits the stark, yellow ruins, and rubs shoulders with endless walls of hieroglyphics, Luxor takes on the feel of an elegantly designed travelogue (whether such tourist destinations would really appear as empty as they do here, I can't say, but it's nice to visit them without the crowds). At a time when travel is limited and foreign lands seem further away than ever, the film functions as a kind of cine-holiday: sites stunningly photographed, pacing as languid as a contemplative walk in the warm winter sun.
Just when it seems Hana is doomed to wander alone, she bumps into the handsome archaeologist Sultan, played here with easy confidence by Karim Saleh. He specialises in digging up the past. Handy, since he and Hana, we discover, share a complicated history. Having lived and worked together in Luxor in their twenties, there's lots of unfinished business between them. Luxor moves into more romantic territory as these middle-aged nomads try to work through their feelings of life and opportunities lost. They swim, get drunk, talk around the trauma of their past. All the time we're never quite sure whether this is good for Hana, or making things worse.
Riseborough gives a quietly effective performance that's perfectly matched to the film's unhurried pace – information conveyed not through words but glances and subtle head movements. Yet the true star might be the film's most frequent setting, the real life Winter Palace Hotel, an old colonial build that is literally out of time. Despite the emptiness of Hana's existence bleeding into the scenery, the grand majesty of the place, with its old world-y bar and spacious rooms, shines through regardless.
Luxor is a very much a film that asks the audience to excavate the details for themselves: shots of Hana interacting with children, providing the few moments where she seems genuinely happy; an unexpected dance scene that is less joyful to watch than it is painful. The ambiguity doesn't work all the time: towards the end, Luxor moves into a more spiritual realm that feels somewhat at odds with the realism that precedes it. And at 85 minutes, many of them wordless, this won't live up to everyone's idea of fulfilment. But for those willing to take a more unconventional trip (and do a bit of digging in the process), Luxor is not unlike stumbling across a little gem buried in the sand.
Luxor is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.Where to watch