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Cairo Time is the anti-Sex and the City 2. Both take place in the Middle East and focus on relationships and fidelity. But whereas the ladies of SATC spent their vacation acting like offensive buffoons, Cairo Time’s female protagonist is quietly respectful. The second spin-off from the HBO series was garish and broad; writer/director Ruba Nadda’s drama is gracefully understated. That’s not to say that Cairo Time is much more successful, though—in fact, it’s so low-key that picking up on its plot, involving a just-short-of-physical affair, might be difficult without the aid of the synopsis.
Patricia Clarkson is Juliette, a wife of a U.N. diplomat who’s supposed to meet her husband in Cairo for a vacation. When he’s tied up in a messy and potentially dangerous situation in Gaza, however, she has little choice than to explore the region alone. Juliette’s husband has asked one of his former employees, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to pick her up at the airport and make sure she gets settled, but otherwise they have no plans to spend time together. At least until the happily independent Juliette starts wandering Cairo’s streets in her Western wear. Almost immediately, men start making advances toward her, following her, and even touching her to such an alarming degree that, at one point, she seeks refuge in a store.
And then she seeks refuge with Tareq. The retired security officer acts as if he’s happy to show her around, but he’s awfully prickly, too, challenging Juliette on everything from the term “Middle East” (“middle of what?”) to her daughter’s creative-writing degree (“How’s she going to make a living?”). They spend loooong days on Cairo’s noisy, chaotic streets, doing a whole lot of walking around and tea-drinking. When Juliette’s alone in her lavish hotel room, she sometimes speaks to her husband, with her end of the conversation amounting to variations of “Are you coming? How much longer until you come? You don’t know when you’re coming?” Sigh and repeat.
Watching Juliette’s time-killing gets pretty boring itself, and her building attraction to Tareq is hard to buy when he does little but criticize her and her American ways. (OK, so he’s sometimes charming, but not nearly often enough.) Clarkson is perhaps smart not to add too much to Juliette—besides mopping sweat and marveling at the sights—and her relatively informed and unerringly respectful tourist is an admirable if dull character. Clarkson’s big moments come toward the end of the film, when Juliette begins to realize that there’s another man she’d like to see the pyramids with. (Not entirely a euphemism.) But even the breadth of emotions that play across her face are too delicate to engage after a whole lot of nothing. At least the SATC women had each other to spark some lively—if inane—logorrhea.