Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Luxor

James Harvey reviews the emotional archeology of an Egyptian city in Luxor

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Image Credit: Modern Films

Director: Zeina Durra
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh
Running Time: 1hr 25m.
Rating: 12A

Luxor follows the journey of British Aid worker Hana (Andrea Riseborough), not-so fresh from the Jordan-Syria border, attempting to reassemble a life scarred by the horrors of the things she has seen. Returning to the titular Egyptian city, she encounters a former lover, archaeologist Sultan (Karim Saleh), and they attempt to rekindle a relationship as they saunter between the hieroglyphs and the hotels.

If this makes the film sound like a love story, it shouldn’t. Indeed, though Sultan features prominently in the film’s 85-minute runtime, and Saleh brings a comfortable charm to the role, we scarcely learn a thing about him— the camera lingering instead on Hana as she wanders ghost-like through her past haunts. Riseborough’s performance here is phenomenal. Pain seeps out from deep beneath the skin and her solemn eyes fill with longing — though Hana herself would seem hard-pressed to tell us what for. When she sleeps alone, she tenses into a curled ball of anxiety, as if expecting to fall back into a war-zone at any moment. When she encounters a stranger, she is all smiles and easy conversations, only to fade into a shadow of herself when they disappear from view. In early scenes with Sultan she holds him at arm’s length, retreating back inside her head as he sits watching her from the other side of a hotel room. Riseborough shows us a person stripped down to a shell, slipping through ruins built by people who even now seem far more alive than she does.

This is Riseborough’s film. Next to her, some of the supporting cast struggle to keep up, not helped by dialogue which at times borders on the pretentious. Yet this visible artifice serves only to force Hana more firmly into the spotlight. She is at times the only real aspect of the picture, adrift in a dream world reflected by the peaceful tranquillity of Luxor itself: a constant and passive observer which feels somehow untouched by the years which have worn Hana down. Nascuy Linares’ score speaks more eloquently than Durra’s dialogue ever could, with much of the plot unfolding without the need of words at all. Meanwhile, Zelmira Gainza’s cinematography paints the city with nostalgia, the colours of an Egyptian sunset splashing onto Hana’s face with the poignance of an old holiday snap.

It is probably worth mentioning at this point that Luxor is not a film for everyone. Its dream-like qualities and the scarcity of any kind of action lend it a pace somewhere between gentle and glacial, depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing. As we follow Hana through her third melancholy saunter through a dusty Egyptian tomb, many in the audience may start to lose patience, and it is difficult to blame them. But for those in search of a quiet – and I mean quiet– night in, watching something that will make you feel particularly artsy, Luxor certainly fits the bill.

And so, despite its flaws, I can do nothing but recommend this film. I suggested before that to call Luxor a “love story” in the traditional sense would be misleading, though by the end you will be certain that that is what it is. Its subject is not the will-they-won’t-they couple of Hana and Sultan, rather the relationship Hana builds within herself. Luxor is a film about falling back in love with life after tragedy. As 2020 draws to a close, it seems more relevant than ever.

Editors Note: Luxor is available to rent on the BFI Player

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