“Everybody hates a tourist,” Jarvis Cocker opined in the Pulp song “Common People.” There’s a lot of truth there, though not the whole truth. It’s the tourist’s job to come, gawk, and leave filled with memories and misperceptions. You take away snapshots and consume meals based on some universally accepted notion of the region’s cuisine, but have you seen the real thing? And pity the earnest tourists, like the one played by Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time—the kind who show up armed with respect, knowledge, and good intentions. The more they try to grasp their destination, the further it slips away.
In a welcome (and too-rare) lead role, Clarkson plays the wife of a UN worker stationed in Gaza, a job that separates her from her husband for long stretches. With no kids left in the house and time off from her job at a glossy women’s magazine, Clarkson decides to meet her husband for vacation in Cairo. There, she finds he’s been indefinitely delayed, leaving her alone to explore a place of unfamiliar sights and customs, a bustling city where women stare openly at her pale skin and blonde hair, and young men follow and touch her. Thankfully, she has a guide in the form of her husband’s former colleague (Alexander Siddig, a familiar face to fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Having left the UN, Siddig has recently returned to his native Cairo and entered the family business, running a café known for serving the best coffee in the city. (“In the world,” one customer insists.) With time on their hands, Siddig and Clarkson explore Cairo, Siddig acting as a gentlemanly host who almost, but never entirely, hides that he’s smitten with his charge.
What follows is part cultural exchange, part unacknowledged romance that’s beautifully played with tangible chemistry by Clarkson and Siddig against striking images of Cairo and surrounding areas. Writer-director Ruba Nadda portrays both characters as exiles, to varying degrees. Clarkson is out of place in Cairo, but has no use for the condescending attitudes of her fellow Westerners. Siddig yearns for the Cairo of his youth, the one he left to pursue a career that’s left him without a family of his own, and with cosmopolitan attitudes that make it hard to slip back into old ways. But in spite of Nadda’s assured direction and her leads’ fine work, the movie glides when it should find traction. Clarkson’s feelings toward her companion seem unsympathetically more like caprice than desire, and their conversations about the differences between their backgrounds touch the surface of those differences without getting beneath the skin. It’s a postcard-lovely movie that, in spite of its best intentions, ends up feeling a little touristy.