In this sort-of spin on Cyrano de Bergerac, the poor letter-writing schmuck with not a hope in hell’s chance of getting the girl is a teenager called Khalifa; he’s more boy than man, a few hairs sprouting experimentally from his top lip. It’s Dubai in 1965, and Khalifa is one of life’s romantics: after watching Dr Zhivago he rushes out to buy a wool trench coat and furry hat, never mind the scorching heat. He might remind you of a character from Wes Anderson, bright and restless, and he’s nicely played by Eslam Al Kawarit with a performance that really shines compared with some of the weirdly lifeless acting elsewhere in this film – which was made in 2018 and is now finally getting a release on streaming.
The woman Khalifa falls in love with is English; it’s the summer holidays and he is working as a letter writer for people who don’t or can’t write themselves. Dubai is still a British protectorate, and red-faced Brits with public school accents are still lording it over the locals – “ruddy ingrates!” (Some of the dialogue here is as stiff as the upper lips). Rosy McEwen plays Elli, the niece of one of the Brits. She’s engaged, but while in Dubai she exchanges meaningfuls with an Indian tailor called Mohammad (Muhammad Amir Nawaz); he’s the third side of the love triangle.
Mohammad hires Khalifa to romance Elli by correspondence. At first, the kid is not keen: he is anti-British, and besides, what kind of language is English – with only one word for “love”? Then he discovers Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the wooing begins in earnest. It really is a sweet performance from Al Kawarit, but the film feels torn between priorities. It’s a light romance but there are shadows of darker themes of empire and racism. What would Elli’s uncle have to say about her romance with an Indian? The film doesn’t go there. Gentle and a bit bland, it doesn’t leave much of a trace.