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Review: ‘Luxor’ and Andrea Riseborough contemplate the essence of being

Karim Saleh and Andrea Riseborough in the movie "Luxor."
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The traveler we first meet in a taxi to the Winter Palace hotel along the Nile looks calm, her baggy attire and placid appearance as she wanders an ancient Egyptian city suggesting someone comfortably in tourist mode. But Hana (Andrea Riseborough) is a British doctor on leave from the brutal realities of a war zone, and she’s hardly in a relaxed frame of mind. That undercurrent is what makes writer-director Zeina Durra’s drama “Luxor” a satisfyingly meditative, history-laden space, one that asks us to consider how we reconcile our experiences with our present, and, as a result, with whom we want to be.

In the elegant sanctuary of a luxury hotel, Hana can decompress in the usual ways: rest, have a drink, commiserate with the friendly manager, even hook up with (and later try to avoid) a chatty American tourist. Visiting Luxor’s temples and tombs, however, she feels the pull of past civilizations that struggled with life and death and sought to memorialize birth and rebirth. This is also a city she knows, so when she runs into archaeologist and onetime lover Sultan (a charming Karim Saleh), their rekindling of a meaningful emotional and intellectual connection amid beauty and ruins loosens her up further. But at the same time, it brings her reluctantly toward the inevitability of new choices.

“Luxor” is an excavation metaphor, for sure. But in the methodical pacing and in cinematographer Zelmira Gainza’s simply evocative location imagery, Durra clearly prefers the type of psychological narrative in which the digging up of feelings is a gradual, contemplative journey, something sensed rather than made explicit. Riseborough grasps too that she is both a layered character and the vessel for a mood piece — it’s why her slow-walked reveal of a resilient woman’s vulnerabilities meshes well with Durra’s delicate attention to the antiquity and mystery around her. In its modest, quiet maturity, “Luxor” avoids the cliché of presenting the East as exotic or renewal as a catharsis — it’s the rare travel story that understands how sometimes being someplace else is as much about the “being” as it is the “someplace else.”

‘Luxor’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Available Dec. 4 on digital and VOD

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