Andrea Riseborough takes on a challenging role in this very unusual drama.


Andrea Riseborough


Here's a film with an ace up its sleeve but, as it turns out, it needs it. Luxor is the second feature by Zeina Durra but the first to be released here and it is a work that is minimalistic in character. That is a mode that is always anathema to some and one has to accept that, but for others it can yield memorable works (a case in point being Kelly Reichardt's splendid Wendy and Lucy of 2008 which is now something of a classic). It is, however, a difficult genre to bring off and, while Durra's film is a brave attempt, I don't feel that it communicates sufficiently to be regarded as a success.


Shot on location in Egypt, the film has at its centre Hana played by Andrea Riseborough. She is a doctor taking a break in Luxor where she encounters an archaeologist, Sultan (Kasim Saleh). They had met before in the same city when a youthful romance between them had not worked out, but now both are childless and not involved in any meaningful sexual relationship so it is possible that they might start out afresh. Such a situation could easily have been built up into a conventional film, but that is not Durra's intention. Instead, she offers a piece in which little actually happens, scorns flashbacks that would elaborate the past, withholds detailed information about the backgrounds of Hana and Saleh and limits the amount of dialogue.


We do know that Hana has come from the Syrian-Jordanian border worn down by what she has seen and experienced there and more than a little unhappy at the prospect of being sent next to Yemen. As for Sultan, he is in Luxor for a dig and, just as he is excavating the historical past through his work, his meeting with Hana is, whether helpfully or not, evoking their earlier days together. Consequently, Luxor is about the passage of time, the influence of the past on the present and the difficulty of leaving trauma behind by finding a fresh will to go on. Plenty to tackle there you might think, but Durra's film hints at these themes without ever getting to grips with them. That's so despite an early scene in which a driver is given a self-consciously set up key line when he talks to Hana and declares that we need to conquer our own inner demons.


With the other players appearing in roles of very limited significance, the film does at least have two strong leading players in Riseborough and Saleh, but even they can only do so much in view of how little they are given (in contrast one recalls how in Andrea Pallaoro's Hannah (2017) Charlotte Rampling magnificently found ways to reveal a character from the inside in a comparably minimalistic work that told us little in actual words). Furthermore, Durra's decision to divide her film into chapters each headed with unhelpful descriptions seems pointless. Fortunately, though, there's still that ace to consider. Luxor is magnificently photographed in colour by Zelmira Gainza and, as Hana visits the sights, Gainza's camera offers a wealth of wonderful location footage (that even applies indoors when the setting is the splendid Winter Palace Hotel). As a story that fails to live up to interesting themes, Luxor is a disappointment, but as a travelogue offering sights rarely covered in other films and backed up by suitably atmospheric music it is an absolute treat. For that aspect alone this film is well worth seeking out.




Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Sherine Reda, Salima Ikram, Michael Landes, Ahmed Talaat, Janie Aziz, Indigo Rønlov, Trude Reed, Shahira Fahmy, Stephanie Sassen, Aziza Sherif.


Dir Zeina Durra, Pro Zeina Durra, Mohamed Hefzy and Mamdouh Saba, Screenplay Zeina Durra, Ph Zelmira Gainza, Pro Des Mohamed Fakhry, Ed Andrea Chignoli and Matyas Fekete, Music Nascuy Linares, Costumes Reem Salama.


Film-Clinic/Front Row Filmed Entertainment/Totem Films/Shoebox Films-Modern Films.
85 mins. Egypt/UK/United Arab Emirates. 2020. Rel: 6 November 2020 (on virtual theatrical release)   and available on BFI Player. Cert. 12A.