SUNDANCE LONDON REVIEW: ‘Luxor’ (2020) Excavates an Enigmatic Love Affair

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A great deal of Luxor’s power is unspoken, and non-literal. It’s in the space between shots… it’s a heady mix with few immediate similarities to other arthouse films of recent years”

Shot in just 18 days on location in the titular city, Luxor is a dreamlike but hard-hitting love story between two people rediscovering one another and dealing with pain beyond description.

Hana (Andrea Riseborough), a fixture of the Winter Palace Hotel Bar in Luxor, rations her words and smiles carefully. A young British woman on vacation in the ancient city, she’s arrived from working as a doctor abroad. Hana spends her days crossing the Nile and visiting ruined temples, mostly ignoring tour guides in favour of her own investigation. En route to one such landmark, she stops to check out an ancient site for a few moments before getting straight back into her taxi. She wanders between the silent tombs of ancient kings and the ambient, neutral zone of her hotel. 

On a riverboat, Hana meets Sultan (Karim Saleh) by chance: they’re old flames who first met in Luxor when they were in their early twenties. Hana seems to drop her guard when she’s around Sultan: we learn that she’s been a doctor on the ground in Syria, while he’s an archaeologist working on a local dig site. They’re both itinerants, living out of hotel rooms. As it turns out, the site at which Hana stopped earlier was one of Sultan’s previous assignments which they both visited – and we begin to wonder how accidental their meeting is.

Director Zeina Durra’s camera is often distant from Hana on the streets of Luxor, suggesting her comfort and ease in moving through this world – but perhaps also suggesting emotional walls that seem to relax as Sultan returns to her life. It’s not a straightforward process, though: at a lunch with Sultan’s colleagues, Hana abruptly walks away from the table, overwhelmed. It’s clear that something is haunting her. 

As the two continue their courtship, reminiscing on the past but seldom talking about the future, Hana begins to lower her guard. At the hotel bar, smoking and giggling with Sultan, Hana dances with abandon to the accompaniment of the bar’s pianist: moments before falling to the floor and howling with grief. The depth of Hana’s desire to reconnect with the past – before she saw unforgettable horrors in Syria – becomes clear. Riseborough’s performance in these scenes is heartbreaking, and Durra’s camera refuses to flinch from such an unrelenting illustration of grief. Riseborough has built an incredible body of work portraying characters compelled to suppress a facet of themselves in order to get by, and Luxor is no exception. As Sultan, Saleh is excellent too: he previously appeared in Durra’s most recent feature, The Imperialists Are Still Alive, and in Luxor he conveys sensitivity and charm. 

The film is permeated by a languid atmosphere and strange energy, like a waking dream, a feeling abetted by the crisp blue and white tones captured by director of photography Zelmira Gainza. Fittingly, our characters discuss mysticism and the beliefs of the past. Early on, Hana rushes to the aid of a spiritual traveller who has fainted at an ancient site – overwhelmed by the energy. Hana’s dismissive, but her perspective changes as her entanglement with Sultan becomes more serious. “The more unstable the world is, the more the supernatural comes to the forefront,” suggests Hana, as she warns Sultan to watch out for curses as he’s digging up the past. Later, a dreamlike interlude brings Luxor’s latent mysticism to the fore, prompting Hana to take up the offer of a meeting with a holy woman to cure her fatigue – an offer which she rejected earlier. A great deal of Luxor’s power is unspoken, and non-literal. It’s in the space between shots. Durra makes us believe in the city’s healing power, and why it might attract people looking to repair themselves. It’s a heady mix with few immediate similarities to other arthouse films of recent years: viewers will be challenged by the patience which Luxor demands. 

Durra’s style is controlled and her shots are carefully chosen, always keeping Hana in focus even when she isn’t centred. At the same time, Luxor makes time to take in the overwhelming ancient beauty of the city and the endless landscape around it: we see what Hana sees, and the film nudges us to share her sincere interest in the history of this land. Durra cites Don’t Look Now as an influence on her economical camerawork: another film which blended the otherworldly with the sights of an ancient city. Chic title cards act as chapter headings and announce locations and themes throughout the film, suggesting the influence of silent cinema, a realm in which magical realism was more commonplace.

Late in the story, although Hana remains stricken with grief and unmoored by life, Sultan comforts her and tells her “we have another chance.” Luxor reminds us that there’s a kind of pain that doesn’t subside, and can’t be medicated or wished away, but that it can be lived with and endured: and not permitted to keep us from rebuilding and moving on. For those who can vibe with this nuanced message, as well as Luxor’s unique energy and measured pace, this may be just the film they’ve been waiting for. It’s an enigmatic and moving journey.

Dir: Zeina Durra

Prod: Mohamed Hefzy, Gianluca Chakra, Mamdouh Saba, Zeina Durra

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Michael Landes, Sherine Reda, Salima Ikram, Shahira Fahmy

Release: 6th November 2020

Header image courtesy of the Sundance Institute