Luxor (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): As she wanders around in Luxor

“Luxor” is a slow and tentative romance drama which suggests a lot with its distinctive local atmosphere to remember. Although the movie does not tell that much about the old past between its two main characters, what is subtly and quietly exchanged between these two different people is often absorbing to watch, and their somber emotional drama is further enhanced by the specific mood and details of an old city surrounding them.

When we are introduced to a British woman named Hana (Andrea Riseborough) at the beginning, she has just arrived in Luxor, Egypt, and the early part of the movie shows her getting accustomed a bit to this foreign place while staying at a posh and luxurious hotel in the city. When she is spending her first evening at the hotel bar, we get a little amusing moment when some guy at the bar tries to talk a bit with her while apparently a little drunk. He is not so funny when he mentions a certain well-known mystery novel by Agatha Christie, but Hana does not mind sleeping with him later, and that leads to another small humorous moment for us.

As she aimlessly wanders around here and there in Luxor, we get to know a bit more about Hana. She is a surgeon who has worked as an aid worker in a number of different war zones, and it is apparent from her rather detached façade that she has been emotionally exhausted for whatever she has saw and experienced from those war zones. Right before she came to Luxor, she worked in the border area between Syria and Jordan, and she will soon go to another war zone right after her current vacation in Luxor.

Quite uncertain about whether she will be able to keep going as before, Hana cannot help but reflect more on her past as looking around many old tourist spots. These tourist spots, most of which are the remains of that glorious era of Ancient Egypt, often look overwhelmingly haunting as embodying several thousand years of history, and Hana often finds herself awed by their sheer scale as well as some small details observed from them.

As a matter of fact, she once dated an archeologist named Sultan (Karim Saleh) many years ago, and she is delighted when she encounters him on a river boat during her second day in the city. By coincidence, Sultan happens to be doing another archeologic work of his at a spot not so far from the city, and he is certainly willing to show her what he and his colleagues are doing at present. Although there is nothing particularly special about what they have been excavating now, Hana sincerely listens to what Sultan enthusiastically presents to her, and we are not so surprised when he suggests that they should stay together for a while in his current staying place, which incidentally looks quite shabbier compared to Hana’s.

While Hana chooses to continue to stay at her hotel as planned, she comes to spend more time with Sultan, and it seems they are attracted to each other a lot just like they once were. When Sultan subsequently approaches closer to her during one evening, Hana does not refuse him at all, and we later get a little playful moment as they attempt to be as carefree as those younger years of theirs.

However, as they interact with each other more and more, Hana and Sultan are also reminded of why and how they broke up with each other. Although the movie never specifies whatever happened between them during that time, we still sense some degree of regret and bitterness as they tentatively talk about their past, and we come to understand why Hana is hesitating over the possibility of regaining her old romance.

While Hana and Sultan keep dancing around each other cautiously, the movie continues to engage us with its vivid and palpable sense of locations and people. I must confess that I have never been to Luxor, but this old city, which eventually comes to us the third main character in the film, looks charming and interesting not only for its old history but also its lively and colorful aspects observed from various places and people. Director/writer/co-producer Zenia Durra did a commendable job of conveying well to us the sublime qualities of the city, and we are not so surprised when an old western couple briefly appearing in the film says they have visited the city every year. As a matter of fact, I actually came to feel the need to visit there during my viewing, though that is not possible at all due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As the emotional center of the film, Andrea Riseborough, who has been more notable since I noticed her for the first time via her supporting role in “Oblivion” (2013), gives a wonderfully tranquil performance often shining with emotional subtlety, and she is also complemented well by Karim Saleh, who previously collaborated with Durra in her debut feature film “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” (2010). Right from their first scene, we can clearly sense some history between their characters, and the following scenes between them are warmed up a lot by their low-key chemistry on the screen.

In conclusion, “Luxor” may require some patience from you in the beginning as one of those “slow” films, but this simple but profound piece of work is worthwhile to watch for mood, storytelling, and performance, and I am already willing to savor its strong points again someday. In short, this is one of the overlooked little gems of last year, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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