On the murky subject of love presented in cinema, the rule tends to be: When two people aren’t supposed to fall in love, they will. Whether the process is charming or cloying depends on the story and the actors swept up in the story. Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time” succeeds as a romance because the would-be lovers, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), don’t give in to their passion carelessly. Nor do they resist it too stubbornly. They are locked in an alluring dance of resistance and acceptance where one always seems in danger of toppling the other but does not. The conclusion remains uncertain until the moment it happens.
Juliette and Tareq’s growing attraction supplies what passes as action/intrigue in “Cairo Time,” which is thoroughly indie in its sensibilities about human emotions and behavior. Much of what happens in the film goes unspoken or happens beneath the surface. Arguments and conversations do not dissolve into frantic attempts at bodice-ripping, Harlequin-approved sex. Grand pronouncements of undying love are in absentia. So viewers demanding immediate gratification will not be pleased; those with a measure of patience and trust in Nadda’s story — helped enormously by the frenetic setting of Cairo, stunningly lensed — and Clarkson’s acting gifts will be. Nadda’s tale is deceptively simple: Juliette has traveled to Cairo to visit her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), but finds he is held up at a Gaza refugee camp. In his stead Mark sends Tareq (Siddig), a former colleague. Tareq, a native of Egypt, is polite and impersonal at the start, then comes to enjoy and — without admitting this to himself — rely on Juliette’s company. Juliette is seduced by Cairo, wonders aloud about moving there, taking her own apartment. Mark shuffles to the background. It’s not that Juliette forgets her husband; it’s more that she forgets to remember him. Cairo changes her. It is a place where she does not have to be herself. With Juliette there, Cairo much changed to Tareq, too.
There’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land fantasy in here somewhere waiting to be exploited, but Nadda opts out of selling out with an easy and convenient coupling. The director does not hurry any part of “Cairo Time,” so many scenes in the film are languid and relaxed. (It is the Patricia Clarkson way, and it never, ever fails.) It’s the romantic tension, which simmers suggestively instead of boiling over, that keeps things saucy. Tareq is a bachelor brought up according to the mores of Muslim culture, taught to be hospitable to guests. He has the unfailingly polite demeanor of a gracious host, even when Juliette breaks taboos by walking into his men-only cafe, or walking the streets of Cairo with no escort. Juliette surprises him with her interest in his life. As the two sight-see or walk the moonlit streets, they get to know each other. Cordiality gives way to teasing, which gives way to silences and glances a little longer than Juliette and Tareq know they should be. It’s attraction they feel, but they won’t say it. Because they are adults, and they sense that a sunset carriage ride is not the ending they will get.
Yes, an adult love story — “Cairo Time” earns this designation the same that recent films like “Last Chance Harvey” and “All the Real Girls” did: by showcasing a relationship developed carefully over time, where intimacy is tended for and cultivated and relationships offer no guarantees. Clarkson was born for these parts; as a younger actress, she surely must have been frustrated that she’d have to get older in order to play them. She does not need words to communicate; in fact, she’s better, infinitely better, the less dialogue she has. Clarkson’s tremulous smiles and knowing glances are, or should be, considered national treasures. Here they find a capable match in Siddig, whose resume thus far is an assortment of bit parts in grandiose productions (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Syriana”). His looks are not pining, but longing. He achingly conveys the plight of a man who is afraid to want what he wants because he has reached an age where fairy tales are just painful reminders that love is love; it promises nothing, and guarantees less.