“Do you worry about opening up places that have been laid to rest?” Hana (Andrea Riseborough) asks Sultan (Karin Salem), an archeologist by trade, as the two walk around the remains of a fallen empire in “Luxor,” inquiring about the hazards of his job perhaps, but just as likely thinking about what’s brought her back to Egypt nearly 15 years after her last excursion there. She has largely been alone with her thoughts since being back in the place where she spent her early twenties, and like the hieroglyphics she sees inside the temples, the wear and tear of time has obscured the meaning of history even though it towers over her. Returning from the Jordan-Syrian border where she tended to those wounded in war as a doctor, she comes alive when a fellow tourist falls ill since it takes her out of her own head, and when Sultan spots her on a ferry, she’s unsure whether to be grateful for the potential of companionship of an old acquaintance or leaving the past be, coyly telling him, “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Writer/director Zeina Durra shrewdly keeps the question of whether that’s true open for debate, though it’s reasonable to think Hana herself doesn’t know for sure, and it gets at the heart of “Luxor” where there’s great tension in whether Hana has had control over her own life or letting go of it after a certain point, having experienced all that she has. There’s an inherent curiosity suggested by the allusions to all the places she’s has been, and even now in seeing her en route to Egypt, she looks tickled by what the world still has to offer in terms of physical wonders, but has become far less interested in people as a measure of self-protection, often confining conversations to inconsequential chitchat and straying from crowds. Cinematographer Zelmira Gainza does considerate work in relaying how inviting the scenery is, never letting the ancient landmarks overwhelm Hana even when framing her as something small inside of them, and Durra wisely allows much of the film to play out on Riseborough’s face in stolen moments as Hana will often save her reactions to what she’s experienced for when she’s in private, perhaps carrying over what she learned from various battlefronts to apply to a daily life she now considers combat.
As “Luxor” unfolds, there’s nifty narrative sleight-of-hand in how it reveals what Hana can remember and the more she knows, the more the film wanders into unknown territory for an audience since her choices feel more dangerous when the personal stakes become clearer. With her relationship to Sultan moving from a chance encounter to a potential courtship, you’re able to see the past, present and future all existing in the same moment when Hana’s decisions of what to withhold and to share with someone else carry immediate consequences but also shed light on how its shaped her life up to now. Riseborough is exquisite in the central role and gives the film the weight and gentility that summon the spirit of both the emotional and physical place she’s in, and while Hana tries her best to forget throughout “Luxor,” the film is one to remember.