How do we conquer our inner demons?
After spending two decades as a British aid worker throughout a war-torn Middle East, Hana (Andrea Riseborough) chooses Luxor as the destination for her leave. Not only is the Egyptian city situated on the east bank of the Nile for serene sights and the spiritual healing of Thebes’ religious monuments to counteract such crippling strife, but it was also the place where her journey inside the region began with a bottomless wealth of hope and promise for the future. She found love there in her twenties and perhaps a return might help resettle her from the psychic horrors she’s endured since losing it. But as many of us realize upon looking out our windows, there’s little opportunity to truly combat the cynicism ignited by humanity’s current, brutal decline.
This is why writer/director Zeina Durra needed to tell the story at the center of her sophomore effort (ten years between) succinctly titled Luxor. What better natural juxtaposition to the darkness befalling us is there than a civilization that sought to hold light as a conquering force above evil? We see it both from locals and foreigners as Hana tours the city’s temples with the former in quiet, heartfelt prayer and the latter speaking of the cleansing ability provided by simply standing in such powerful arenas of history beyond our imagination. It almost becomes a joke that everyone she passes tells her to visit Abydos because it “would do her good.” She hadn’t realized the pain and depression of her adult life rested so visibly upon her shoulders.
So it does prove jarring when a genuine smile of joy and surprise lights up her face upon seeing the man who calls out her name on the boat taking her back across the river to her hotel. Sultan (Karim Saleh) is a piece of her own unimaginable history as the man she loved and tried so hard to stay connected to despite their careers forcing them to go their separate ways—hers to provide medical assistance where needed and his to break ground on new archeological digs. Sultan is a symbol of what was and what could have been if fate, circumstances, and choices were different. So he’s therefore both the best thing she could have found and the worst. He conjures happy memories and devastating regret.
The ways in which Hana deals with this reality becomes the entirety of the film. Each new day arrives with its own chapter heading before sending her body to ancient sites, her mind towards lost emotions, and her soul into an introspective vulnerability that simultaneously risks destruction and facilitates salvation. It’s one thing to return and recharge her batteries before going back into Hell, but it’s another to find a chance at reclaiming a piece of herself that she thought was gone. Doing so won’t be easy, though. Especially not when she’s undecided whether she even wants to get it back. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned during these past twenty years, it’s that comfort and peace are an illusion. Good things have a tendency of turning bad.
Know that discovering whether or not this one will isn’t Durra’s goal. No one can know whether our actions can right this sinking ship we call Earth. What Luxor strives to give us instead is the room to hope that it’s even possible. Is a nihilistic outlook on the future all we can afford? For many of us it is. Sometimes that level of distrust is the only thing that keeps us safe from the perpetual cycle of tragedies that consume cultures, communities, and faiths. This is the case with Hana since steeling herself away from the atrocities to which she’s bore witness keeps her focus on the task at-hand. To therefore see Sultan again is to see him through vastly different eyes. Love is but a fantasy.
So don’t expect your usual romantic drama happily-ever-after when the most any of us can wish for is the opportunity to strive for the smallest light inside darkness’ vast abyss. Sultan is but a figure as abstract and reliant upon one’s own conviction as the amulets of Egyptian goddesses found buried in the sand. Is what he stands for something Hana can rely on? Is the potential that rekindling this romance ends how it did before worth the chance it won’t? She must dig deep into her own mind and heart to excavate a solution because she now knows the price via hindsight. And while she was able to bounce back and move forward in her youth, the experiences she’s endured since will only drag her down further.
That means a slow, methodical quest unfolding as much behind Riseborough’s eyes as it does on the screen. It’s days of Sultan doing his best to inject himself into her daily routine only to find her pushing him away to maintain the barrier she’s insulated herself behind for self-preservation. As such, Durra ensures the gorgeous sites her characters walk through are presented with as much austere beauty and potency as they possess in real life. This is an adventure of the soul—a spiritual and philosophical journey towards clarity at a time where it’s in very short supply. The most kinetic moment we receive is thus a drunken dance expelling pent-up energy before a dream-like vision of promise can awaken Hana to the answer she seeks.
 Andrea Riseborough as Hana in the drama/romance film LUXOR, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
 (L-R) Karim Saleh as Sultan and Andrea Riseborough as Hana in the drama/romance film LUXOR, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
 (L-R) Andrea Riseborough as Hana and Karim Saleh as Sultan in the drama/romance film LUXOR, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.