Our twenties are supposed to be one of the most formative decades of our lives — many of us go to college, graduate from said college and move on to insanely different lives all in the first five years of this decade. Throw in a study-abroad stint or two and there’s the potential to become a wholly new person from when we’re 20 to when we hit the big three-oh. We come up with tangible hopes and dreams in our twenties, all of us on the cusp of this big “something” that they talk about in books. But what happens when they don’t come to fruition? We learn to let go, but sometimes what we can’t have when we’re twenty comes back years later, taunting us with what could have been, making us wonder what we could still have. Director Zeina Durra’s (“The Imperialists are Still Alive”) “Luxor” takes this feeling and, instead of developing strong characters with a rich background, imbues this nostalgia with the monotonous atmosphere of reality.
Named for its setting, “Luxor” follows Hana (Andrea Riseborough, “Mandy”) as she tries to rediscover herself in the city where she found love in her 20s. But if it wasn’t for the film’s description on Sundance’s website, this important connection to the city would have remained a mystery. Aside from vague references to a previous visit, there is little mention of her relationship with Luxor and its importance to her youth. “Luxor” also introduces its audience to Sultan (Karim Saleh, “Counterpart”), Hana’s former lover, another fact only obvious because of the film’s summary. The film desperately tries to establish a rapport between the two characters, but it lacks the heat of two lost loves finally reunited; instead, Hana and Sultan exude an air of friends who lost touch for a bit.
Hana’s character leaves much to be desired — Durra chooses to depict the dregs of a woman who was once probably bubbly and charismatic, which isn’t a problem in itself. The issue, once more, is that there is little effort to create any feeling of sympathy towards her. In place of actually exploring her experiences, and the question of what it’s like to be at war, “Luxor” barely acknowledged the trauma that Hana was supposedly escaping, only addressing it in an offhand comment about her inability to sleep.
As it tries to consider the themes of love and war, the film also tries to foster a sense of nostalgia. And it does … in a really, really subtle way. Hana’s stumbling manners with Sultan and recognition of community members hint at days gone by, but nothing so strong that the audience is made to sympathize with her. Rather, it seems as if Luxor is just a friendly city.
“Luxor” also seems to wish to explore more than lost love — the added element of spirituality creates an air of mystery that is left unsolved. It is never fully explained why exactly Hana can’t remember seemingly unforgettable trips; the audience is simply left to believe that it has something to do with her time at a war border. Loose ends might create intrigue within a film. But when they’re coupled with an effort to establish a conversation around spirituality with little exploration of why this spirituality is important to both the audience and the characters, it seems less like those questions were strategically unanswered and more like the writers forgot to finish their thoughts.
And it’s not as if this emotionless atmosphere is then replaced with desire for Sultan or a time before. Instead, the film is a slow uncovering of the shells that trauma creates and how our interactions are left just as empty as we are. No longer are Sultan and Hana the lively 20-year-olds who met at the edge of life. Both have gone and seen the world and it seems they may never get together like they once did. This theme, however, is left just as unexplored as Hana’s spiritual journey. Though there is little of the “will they, won’t they” nature of a sitcom, there is also no conflict in the rekindling of their relationship. Small tidbits from their past come up, a woman named Chloe seemed to be of particular issue, but beyond that, all “Luxor” really presents is two 40-ish people trying to find who they were twenty years prior.
Despite the lack of depth, or maybe because of it, “Luxor” maintained a sense of realism. In our everyday lives, there aren’t always “aha” moments. We move day-to-day, sometimes shuffling through life like Hana, only to stumble on a person from our past pushing us to reevaluate the tedious nature of our lives. Is it supposed to be boring once we leave our twenties? Do we just follow a career path blindly into a war zone? “Luxor” suggests that, yes, we do, but the film provides a little bit of hope that maybe we’ll get a shot at our twenties again.