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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Ruins"
4 stars

The trouble with writing a review of a film like “Luxor” is that even the most basic and carefully composed description of its plot runs the risk of making it sound like either a gooney romance or a painfully pretentious melodrama when it is, in fact, anything but either of those.

As the story begins, Hana (Andrea Riseborough) arrives in the Egyptian city that gives the film its title for a break after a long stretch working as a doctor on the war-torn Jordanian-Syrian border. The location is one that she is familiar with—she spent time there studying the archaeological digs scattered throughout the area a couple of decades earlier—but even as she revisits old haunts, she still seems a bit distanced from her surroundings and although the film wisely never goes into too many details, it seems as if she is still struggling to cope with the presumably awful things that she bore witness to while working in the war zone. While out one day, she happens to run into Sultan (Karin Saleh), an archaeologist who was her lover back when she was there. Although she is happy enough to see him, Hana suggests that she does not really have any particular memories of their past relationship. Recognizing that Hana is not in a particularly good emotional place, Sultan is gentle towards her during the extended periods of time that they spend together, approaching her in a delicate manner suggestive of his he might approach one of his finds in order to unveil its secrets without destroying everything in the process. The problem for Hana, who is currently mulling over whether to return to work in Yemen, is that while she appreciates his sensitivity, it has the side effect of forcing her to confront both her past and her future, two periods of time that she is trying to avoid dealing with as much as possible.

Like I said, it is hard to describe an enigmatic mood piece like “Luxor” in a way that will grab viewers and convince them to seek it out over films that offer more straightforward narratives and overt moments of emotional catharsis that help to spell everything out. Writer-director Zeina Durra finds just the right approach to the material to find a balance between an intelligent and sensitive exploration of the trauma that Hana is alternately working through and avoiding and an embrace of the more mystical aspects of her surroundings that avoids devolving into New Agey blather. Riseborough is quite good in a role that is all the more challenging because it requires her to suggest that roiling emotions of her character even as her outward demeanor is mostly one of placid detachment. Saleh is also very good at presenting his character as someone who Hana could really use at this point in her life, even if she struggles to realize that herself.

Some viewers may find “Luxor” to be too restrained and reticent for its own good but those who are willing to embrace the kind of slow-burn drama that does not require tons of emotional pyrotechnics to make its point should find it fascinating to watch and contemplate after it is over.

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originally posted: 12/04/20 05:17:01
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