Cairo Time captures present-day concerns and emotional conflict in an exotic, timeless world
In this age of global trade and telecommunications, the reality depicted in Cairo Time should feel quaint, remote and outmoded. Haven’t these places lost much of their exotic appeal, their charms and uniqueness diluted by a thousand travel shows, hip guidebooks and reality programs? Yes. They have. And shouldn’t we be dubious, even antagonistic, to the notion that there are any truly alien experiences left to be had on this planet? Again, very probably yes. Yet the film manages to create and sustain exactly the timelessness and otherworldliness that it set out to.
Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is a successful editor of a magazine that does not expect her to be flamboyant or dominating. She is quiet, circumspect and comfortable with her place in the world. She arrives in Cairo to spend time with her husband (Tom McCamus), a UN bureaucrat who has been working in Gaza, only to find him delayed indefinitely in the Middle East. He asks an acquaintance, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to meet up with her. What follows is both predictable and completely unexpected.
Playing a woman who collides with and is ultimately seduced by not only a place or even a man, but more significantly by the woman she never knew she wanted to be, Clarkson says Cairo Time became more of a minefield than anticipated.
"Juliette and I are not at all alike, but I wound up finding more similarities than I ever would have expected," she confesses. "The thing was that, like Juliette, I had never been to Cairo either. It was very difficult to separate my own epiphanies of being in that marvellous place from the ones Juliette was bringing to the story."
It’s fair to say Cairo Time is the sort of story we don’t get much of anymore. This kind of ex-pat yarn -exotic, sensual, ambling and genteel – harkens back to an era when Westerners marked their bande à part status by flying to the far reaches, sinking in and distilling their experiences. But Cairo Time isn’t set in the 1920s or ’30s, it’s set in the here and now, and travels at its own pace – which, according to Clarkson, is a speed particular to Cairo itself.
"The place really does have its own rhythm," she says. "I mean, [I], Patsy, was making a film, and [my character] Juliette was biding her time waiting for her husband, but Cairo doesn’t care. We were both very much lost in the strangely sluggish immediacy of it. It’s simply not possible to function at any other pace – it’s just Cairo time. It’s hard not to be reflective in that environment."