Acclaimed actress Andrea Riseborough returns to Sundance with two films in 2020 which demonstrate her typical range and eclectic choices of roles. One is Possessor, an extremely gory and violent horror film from Brandon Cronenberg (David’s son), which is a return to the genre after 2018’s Mandy.

Her other Sundance film from this year is Luxor, an understated drama from director Zeina Durra about Hana, a doctor who works in war zones and finds respite in her downtime in the Egyptian city. There, she is reunited with a former lover, Sultan (Karim Saleh). I met up with Riseborough, Saleh and Durra in Park City to discuss the film.

Riseborough describes Luxor as a “perfect script” and something she loved about it was the levity and fun within it, despite her character Hana recently having been in a war zone. Saleh was drawn to the film because of its complex portrayal of the Middle East, away from its typical depictions, related to events such as the Gulf War and Arab Spring. Durra wanted Riseborough for the central role because of her ability to convey a lot without speaking and for being someone who is magnetic to watch.

The actors didn’t have rehearsal time, something which Saleh was relieved about. But within the 18-day shoot, they did have the chance for some experimentation and spontaneity. A highlight of the film is when Hana gets drunk in the hotel bar with Sultan and starts dancing. This was originally planned to be a karaoke scene, for which they wanted to use Purple Rain, a song that was important to the cast and crew during filming. However, they couldn’t get the rights as they would probably have “cost as much as the whole movie”, Riseborough explains. So, they came up with the idea of it being a dance the night before, the hotel bar had real patrons in it, as well as a couple of the film’s producers. But Riseborough just went ahead and free-styled the dance in an unplanned way, with a very accommodating pianist playing along.

Hana’s costuming is the very baggy and comfy clothing of a seasoned traveller, who perhaps has her shirts made in India. The jacket was the director’s own, bought in Marrakech, as was Hana’s bag, which was from Colombia. Durra says that Hana “doesn’t want to be looked at, she just wants to move around.” Durra explains that she wanted a colour palette that would stand out from the stones and was influenced by the colour of the costumes in Antonioni’s The Passenger.

Durra explains that Luxor is a very spiritual place, whether you like it or not. Riseborough thinks that Hana views Luxor as a safe space, “a haven” and that there is a “domestic quality” to her time there. Even though she is in a hotel, it is a familiar space and Hana uses the staff entrances. Riseborough also says that seeing Durra in Luxor made the place all “make sense” to her. Durra says that when she spoke to archaeologists in the city, they said that although they might not all admit it, they all had had “spiritual moments” “Often intellectuals may dismiss that stuff, but Freud and Jung didn’t, they were obsessed by it.” Saleh read Jung as part of his preparation for the role. Durra says she wanted to include the line that Hana says about “when you’re disturbed, the supernatural is much more obvious” because “the day-to-day isn’t drowning it out, you’re in a no man’s land and you’re trying to make sense of it.”

There is a sequence in the film where Durra chooses to have an argument between Hanna and Sultan in voice-over over a shot of Hanna walking down the street crying, as it is playing over in her head. Durra wanted to shoot it like this because you “get a real sense of her interior life.” It makes the argument more ambiguous as to whether it actually took place at all and also whether her perception of it is accurate. As a woman, we may view Sultan as a “cold jerk” in that moment as he is being callous with his words. But a man may view the argument differently.

The intimacy and history between Hana and Sultan is palpable, without the need for sex scenes. Saleh liked the fact that it could be shown in ways other than sex. Sultan can support Hana without the need for words of reassurance or overt actions, he could “give her the space she needed,” Saleh explains. You feel that these two characters have a backstory and the weight of their relationship without it needing to be spelled out explicitly.

Luxor is a drama that does show a different side to Egypt and the Middle East from the usual depictions in film and TV. It is entirely hinged on Riseborough’s central performance which is compelling as always.

Full review here:

REVIEW: Luxor (Sundance 2020)