As a general rule for life, I've found that if a movie stars Patricia Clarkson (especially since the turn of the millennium), it is almost certainly worth seeing. Not, maybe, a masterpiece; not even, necessarily, particularly good. But Clarkson herself is invariably worth watching, and she's of that rarefied company of actors who seems to always pick projects that are at least interesting, even if they are not invariably perfect.
Hence: Cairo Time, which would sound exactly like "Lost in Translation with a middle-aged Scarlett Johansson" if I told you the plot, and would probably never sound like anything else no many how details I added. Which is an extremely good reason why you should never let a plot synopsis be the sole reason you choose your movies (whereas choosing them because of the lead actress - now that's just good sense). What makes Cairo Time work has little to do with its story as such, and more with the empty spaces around the story, filled in with details of character and emotional presence.
Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, the wife of Mark (Tom McCamus), a UN official working on some business in Gaza whose details we never learn. She has come to Cairo to spend some time with him, learning only when her plane lands that he's been held up due to the customary unquiet of that region, and in his absence, she's met by his friend and former aide, Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig). Tareq offers to escort Juliette around the city, which she accepts, though only after finding life in the American embassy to be a grueling matter of addle-minded petroleum wives and sheer banality, and finding further that Cairo is not an easy place to be a Western woman with no knowledge of Arabic beyond the word for "thank you". It's convenient to say that what crops up between Juliette and Tareq is a hesitant, unrequited romance, though convenience here comes at the expense of precision.
The most important thing to point out is what Cairo Time is not: an "innocents abroad"-style depiction of a foreigner out of her depth in an exotic culture. That is to say when it is that thing, it's unyieldingly in service to its more immediate concern, a woman who is not terribly happy, and is well aware of it, stretching her wings a little bit.
How much of this is inherent in the screenplay, and how much of it comes entirely from Clarkson, is something that I can't altogether say; I'd credit the actress with more than half of it. Certainly, I think the film would be better across the board without writer-director Ruba Nadda. Every individual aesthetic works extremely well, especially Luc Montpellier's excellent cinematography, moving jarringly from blinding exteriors to murky interiors, and constantly refusing to sentimentalise Cairo as the stuff of a tourist's postcards, even in such seemingly-iconic shots as the Giza pyramids at sunset; Teresa Hannigan's judicious editing also stands out, gently establishing Juliette's inability to connect with the world around her, and then just as gently showing how she starts to grow more comfortable, while Niall Byrne's score falls into an uncanny sweet spot where it seems both obviously sentimental (all soaring strings), but contains just enough moody dissonance that it never plays strictly as we'd expect. But the guiding hand behind all these elements, and more (the sound design is rather cunning, as well, to say nothing of the costumes by Brenda Broer), is always inclined towards the obvious statement rather than the quiet suggestion. A film whose themes are insulated and personal has a hard time standing up to the overtness of Nadda's direction, and even more her writing.
Still, what works in the film manages to assuage the harshest edges of Nadda's missteps; and nothing but nothing works better than Patty Clarkson, whose evocation of Juliette is most of the reason the film exists at all. It's a character study, all the way through, and the best parts of the character come from the actress: a grimace the briefly flashes across her face, or that wonderful, "I'm not really happy, but I have a certain level of satisfaction nevertheless" half-pained-smile that she does so extremely well - and given how very much that phrase describes her character in Cairo Time, she gets to use it a hell of a lot. Juliette, we are quickly given to understand, is a bit frustrated: she has, by this point, run out of surprises and it's clear enough that this "flying around the world, meeting Mark" routine has become dull. The arc of the movie, then, is in how she finds what it would be like to actually live like this, to be a different sort of woman in a different place; it is a drama about being shaken up by a change of scenery, in effect. This skates right up the the edge of orientalism, without going over: the specifics of Cairo matter more because they are unfamiliar than because they are necessarily exotic, if that makes sense. The exoticism simply makes it take that much longer for her to find her bearings, which in turn gives her more space to live a completely different lifestyle. This includes finding herself attracted to a man not her husband for the first time ever; while this could come across as both exploitative and maudlin, it's more simple and peaceful than that. Juliette has never been given a chance to live outside her life, and so has never been able to respond to a man, much less one as erudite and charming as Taleq. This is all Clarkson's doing, or at least it's all refracted through her being such that our understanding of the character is entirely a function of the actress's nuances and shading, regretful without being bitter, presenting a perfect facade of satisfaction that she only mostly believes, feeling occasional emotions that take her by surprise even as she enjoys them.
It's Juliette's movie all the way, so it's not entirely surprising that Taleq isn't a fully fleshed-out character; but Siddig turns in a magnificent little performance that suggests a human hiding in the largely functional role nevertheless. Like Clarkson's performance, Siddig's is full of tiny moments - by necessity, given that the script leaves him little else to do. His fractional asides, responding to Juliette with varying degrees of amusement and understanding that we notice although doesn't, tell us volumes about the man; the two actors are a perfectly matched set, and in the process Siddig manages to accomplish one of the hardest acting feats of all, making it impossible to remember that he's a Star Trek universe veteran.
Between the two of them, they make Cairo Time a much more involving, lingering experience than it it probably deserves to be. Certainly, it's not a particularly graceful film, except that sometimes moments of pure grace just soldier in and turn a fine adult drama into something so much deeper that words fail me. At the end, Juliette finds herself discovering that the woman who was so enriched by Cairo is going to return to being Mrs. Mark Grant; like everything else, it's hard to say how much this bothers her exactly, but it is a heartbreaking moment regardless, and all the more heartbreaking because I didn't realise until exactly that instant just how much I cared about this woman. Not all art announces itself and bowls you over with its power; sometimes it sneaks up on you unawares, and as minor and sometimes frustrating as it can be, it's this habit the film has of revealing itself to be much more than it seems that makes Cairo Time a compelling vision of a woman lost and found.