Luxor review – beautifully sparse character study amid Egypt’s ancient glory | Film

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Andrea Riseborough stars as a war-zone medic going through a low-key mid-life crisis as she tries to recover by visiting the famous archaeological site

Classy stuff ... Andrea Riseborough in Luxor.

Classy stuff … Andrea Riseborough in Luxor.

Slow, delicate and sparse, Luxor is coming out on digital this week just as all the cinemas close down again. If you have a chance to see it, try to view it in the dark, without distractions, on the biggest screen you can in order to approximate a cinema setting and to best appreciate its deep-breath pacing and dry-heat beauty.

Writer-director Zeina Durra’s feature, her second after the evocatively titled The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, follows English surgeon Hana (an unusually subdued Andrea Riseborough, giving a great, slow-burn performance) as she recovers from the horrors of working in a Syrian war zone for an aid organisation. As she rests up at a plush hotel in Luxor, the open-air museum of a town in Egypt she used to live in years 20 before, she passes the time visiting the sights and having polite interactions with other guests and tourists, all the while considering what may be an even more traumatic assignment in Yemen.

When she runs into an ex-lover, Sultan (a smouldering Karim Saleh), an archaeologist working a dig nearby, the two revive their old friendship and maybe a bit more. But the tentative romance isn’t really the point of this thoughtful study. Through a very studied use of posture, expression and even clumsy stoned dance moves, Riseborough outlines the contours of Hana’s low-key midlife crisis, the contemplation of roads not taken and lives not led, all somehow more present because of the history-steeped ancient setting of the town. Someone mentions at one point that, “the more unstable the world is, the more the supernatural comes to forefront,” which might set up certain expectations for some viewers, but the ghosts here are all strictly theoretical, or at least off-camera.

Like director Joanna Hogg, Durra excels at suggesting subtexts and undercurrents threaded through everyday conversations. At all times the dialogue sounds improvised and flows entirely naturally, even when characters are paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci’s ever resonant gloss on historical chaos: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Classy stuff, and a good way to get in some cinematic tourism to a place no doubt soon to feature in the possibly much trashier Death on the Nile.

• Released on 6 November on digital formats.

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