A happily married, middle-aged Canadian woman opens to the sensuality of Egypt in this middlebrow romance.

A happily married, middle-aged Canadian woman opens to the sensuality of Egypt in the middlebrow romance “Cairo Time.” The fourth feature from Canadian writer-helmer Ruba Nadda (“Sabah”) has a slightly breathless, old-fashioned feel, calling to mind the cliched fiction found in the type of ladies’ magazine the heroine edits. Still, the presence of Patricia Clarkson in the leading role could give the pic theatrical traction in some markets, although it is more likely to find its niche in ancillary. Pic nabbed the Canadian feature prize at Toronto.

Juliette (Clarkson, uncharacteristically languid) arrives in Cairo to vacation with U.N. bureaucrat hubby Mark (Tom McCamus) — and fulfill their longtime pledge to see the Pyramids together — only to find he can’t get away from his work at a Gaza refugee camp. Standing in as substitute host is urbane native Tareq (Sudan-born, U.K-trained Alexander Siddig, looking slightly embarrassed), Mark’s former colleague, who now runs his father’s popular coffeehouse.

Initially discombobulated by the pace and texture of Egyptian life, Juliette gradually relaxes and comes to rely on Tareq for help and companionship while exploring the city. While Nadda deploys the visual conventions of a love story to depict the pair as they stroll, sail and dine, she fails to make credible the development of an attraction (even of the unrequited sort) between two characters who’ve already been defined as strong-willed and faithful.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Clarkson and Siddig (both of whom have been much better elsewhere) have no onscreen chemistry despite the romantic settings. It’s Cairo that appears to its best advantage: As Nadda shoots famous landmarks and hidden gems, the gritty city becomes the true star of the film.

The good-looking cinematography, art direction and sound design capture the chaos of Cairo’s congestion, noise and traffic, as well as the sensual quality of its distinct beauty; songs by Um Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez deepen the exotic atmosphere. Only the costume design for Juliette strikes a false note.

The pic was set up as a Canadian-Irish co-production in order to shoot in Egypt.

Cairo Time

Canada-Ireland

Production

A Mongrel Media (in Canada) release of a Foundry Films (Canada)/Samson Films (Ireland) production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Media Development Corp., Astral Media the Harold Greenburg Fund, Movie Central, Corus Entertainment, the Movie Network, Ecran, City TV, Super Channel. (International sales: E1 Entertainment, Toronto.) Produced by Daniel Iron, David Collins. Executive producers, Charles Pugliese, Christine Vachon. Directed, written by Ruba Nadda.

Crew

Camera (color), Luc Montpellier; editor, Teresa Hannigan; music, Niall Byrne; songs, Um Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez; production designer, Tamara Conboy; costume designer, Brenda Boer; sound (Dolby Digital), Rob Fletcher. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 14, 2009. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Tom McCamus, Elena Anaya, Amina Annabi.  (English, Arabic dialogue)

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