Zeina Durra returns to Sundance after a ten year absence with her second feature film Luxor. Centred around a typically hypnotic performance from Andrea Riseborough, the film follows Hana, who is fresh from her work as a doctor on the Jordan/Syria border, finding respite in the ancient Egyptian city. It becomes apparent that she has been there before, as a former lover – Sultan (Karim Saleh) – comes back into her life. Despite being resistant, Hanna is drawn down various spiritual routes that the city takes her on, as she tries to heal her internal wounds in different ways.

Hana gravitates back to a familiar hotel and it is clear that she is comfortable in the city – she knows taxi drivers and starts to use the staff entrance of the hotel. She quickly has a casual sexual encounter with a man she meets in the hotel bar but is still obviously affected by where she’s come from “I can’t sleep, I just got back from a war zone.” Hana bumps into her old love Sultan on a ferry and it is apparent, from her fumbling and nervous reaction, that there are still feelings there. As Hana visits various temples, tombs and other archaeological sites, she feels a ‘presence’ and is touched by something spiritual or possibly even supernatural; “the more unstable the world, the more the supernatural comes to the forefront.” Hana is clearly more affected by her experiences (presumably with Medicins Sans Frontieres) than she wants to let on – she forgets things and has a moment of release (a higlight of Riseborough’s performance) when she gets drunk, dances and starts sobbing.

Riseborough’s career has followed an interesting path, even just within just the last five years. She makes risky choices and is virtually unrecognisable from role-to-role, with films ranging through British comedies Mindhorn and The Death of Stalin, to smaller roles in  ‘prestigious’ awards dramas like Battle of the Sexes, Birdman and Nocturnal Animals and larger roles in genre films – Nancy, Mandy and this year’s Possessor. Refreshingly, she brings her real-life, matter-of-fact Northern character to Hana and some her line-deliveries are so good. When Sultan tells her that a mutual friend (and possibly his ex-girlfriend) is now “happily married with children,” Hana responds in her lazy, hungover state with “cool.” A film liked Luxor couldn’t possibly work unless you were completely sucked in by the central performance, but Riseborough always gives the impression that there is so much under the surface that Hana isn’t expressing.

The cinematography by Zelmira Gainza and editing by Andrea Chignoli both aid the woozy, dreamlike state of Luxor. Hana is experiencing the city through a fog of jet-lag and possibly some post-traumatic stress. Reconnecting with Sultan makes her feel comfortable, as does seeking solace in the ancient and holy sites. Durra made this film with a newborn baby in tow and with women in key crew positions (including DP and editor) – none of which should be noteworthy in 2020 – but unfortunately still are. The costume design of Hana’s baggy, over-sized masculine shirts and loose trousers reveal so much about her character.

Durra’s script walks a delicate balance of humour and levity, while making it clear that Hana is traumatised and in her words “broken” by what she has witnessed and experienced. It is hinted that she has regrets about her life choices, particularly involving Sultan, but it is never presented as simple or black-and-white. The city is an evocative presence in the film, very much a third character which profoundly affects Hana and Sultan in different ways. Hana’s interactions with various women – some tourists and some locals – alter her perception of the place and how it is shaping her. Hana is a complicated woman, sensitively written by Durra and performed with nuance by Riseborough. It is also refreshing to see a story set in a Middle Eastern city where war informs the central character, but isn’t the primary focus. Riseborough’s easy chemistry with Saleh also conveys a sense of history for these characters, but it is left to the audience to fill in much of their backstory. Much is left unsaid, as it can be when you know someone intimately. This is an interesting feature film from Zeina Durra (with yet another mesmerising Riseborough performance) and hopefully, it will not be another ten years before she makes another.

Rating: ★★★½

SUNDANCE INTERVIEWS: Director and Stars of ‘Luxor’