Luxor, writer-director Zeina Durra’s artistic drama set in Egypt, tells the tale of the unexpected reunion of two lovers, presumably decades after the demise of their original relationship. It emerges that what the two leads, an archaeologist and a warfront surgeon, have in common is that they are both essentially stuck in their individual and shared pasts. The film features the beautiful and symbolic backdrop of Egyptian ruins and dig sites, highlighting the theme of the potency of the lasting reminders of a lost past.
Andrea Riseborough’s Hana is a surgeon on leave from the Syrian war, who struggles to bear the burdens of what she has seen and experienced. She returns to Egypt alone, and is unexpectedly reunited with Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist who we learn is her former lover. Little context is given for their past relationship, but the audience is led to believe that their feelings for each other very much live on in the ruins of their former union. The film tracks their journey relearning each other as individuals and exploring their shared memories and feelings.
Although Durra succeeds in creating visually appealing scenes and powerful visual metaphors, the artfulness of Luxor is prioritized at the expense of the human and relatable elements of the film. The pace drags and dialog is sparse, leading audiences to wonder when the plot will begin, or what the film is really about. We see Hana (Riseborough) meander through the Egyptian sites and understand through her pensive demeanor that she is burdened and struggling, but the film does not give a window to learn enough about Hana and her inner life to truly care about or identify with her. The main characters seem like strangers, and the film feels voyeuristic and shallow in its lack of character development and context. It is difficult to root for the main characters or invest in their struggles when by the end of the film, they still feel like strangers to the audience.
The main success of the film is in its visual beauty, and director Zeina Durra’s skill in establishing unspoken metaphors and symbolism. Placing Hana among Egyptian ruins while showing her internal struggle to process her memories sets the tone for the film, and as she ruminates over the significance of Egypt’s past, we see that she is mourning what is lost or damaged in her own past.
The same can be said for the scenes featuring Hana and Sultan’s reunion. As they reminisce about their former love, the ancient Egyptian ruins add a sense of melancholy, decay, and loss to their dialog. The history and what is left of it in the present is beautiful and weighty but there is also a sense of being past its prime, and unable to ever be fully recovered. This notion holds true for the ancient buildings and archaeological finds of the film, and for Sultan and Hana themselves, both individually and together. This sense of loss is sharpened to a point in moments like Hana and Sultan discovering that neither of them has had children; having both reached middle age, the elephant in the room is that they cannot turn back time to achieve this missed dream. Luxor is largely a meditation on the nature of relationships and our personal pasts, exploring what the questions of identity, history, and memory have to do with each other.
Ultimately, although Luxor contains beautiful moments, the storyline meanders and the pace plods on unevenly. The interesting visuals and the masterful symbolism of the film are cheapened by the lack of emotional connection to the characters. There is simply not enough done in the film to develop our understanding of the characters, their relationship, and their backstories to foster a sense of humanity and connection. Luxor feels as though it keeps Hana at a distance, never letting us get close enough to know her. The film feels shallow, and like an art piece posing philosophical questions rather than a story about people. While at times beautiful and interesting, it is not satisfying as a whole. Nonetheless, particularly in a time when most travel is impossible, the film is worth experiencing for the stunning filming and pensive style that transport viewers to Egypt.
Luxor is available On Demand and Digital on December 4th.