There are two main stars of The Nile Hilton Incident (cert 15, 111 mins, ★★★★): the first is the lean, compelling figure of Fares Fares, who plays Noredin Mostafa, a disillusioned Cairo cop. The second is his cigarette. The cigarette goes everywhere with him: in the car, the office, through the dusty streets of the unquiet city, and then to bed. In his more louche moments, it transforms into a joint. Rarely has a film been wreathed in so much smoke: it’s not quite thick enough, however, to obscure the rot at the heart of the state.

In the Cairo of this film – set in the weeks before President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011 – policing is not so much about solving crime as elegantly finessing a complex system of bribes, cover-ups and reprisals. Mostafa’s worldly uncle Kamal, his superior at the station, is a past master at this art, so much so that ethics never trouble his awareness at all. Yet despite regularly trousering bribes, Mostafa himself possesses a difficult kernel of conscience, possibly planted by his own father (when he tells the old man he’s earned some extra money, Mostafa senior replies bleakly: “Please don’t say you’ve earned some money. Just say you stole it. You can’t buy dignity, son”).

A single incident finally activates the kernel: a beautiful singer and escort, Lalena, is murdered in the Nile Hilton, an upmarket hotel, and a young Sudanese chambermaid, Salwa (Mari Malek), is the sole witness to two men linked to the crime. One of the men is Shafiq (Ahmed Selim), Lalena’s clandestine lover and a powerful businessman who is close to Mubarak. Mostafa gets deeper into the investigation only to find it full of twists and dead ends, as the state’s role in protecting the killer grows ever murkier. Despite numerous warnings, Mostafa keeps turning up in unwanted places like a smoking question mark.

The elements in the drama – the moody cop, the hard-boiled colleagues, the slain torch singer – might all add up to predictable ingredients in a slice of neo-noir. Yet the familiar template is given a pungently original flavour by the Cairo setting, strong performances and skilful thickening of an airless political atmosphere in which virtue has no room to breathe.

The Swedish writer-director Tarik Saleh has depicted a society riven with edgy suspicion, where men openly gawp with desire at an attractive woman, yet the women themselves are essentially disposable. At the bottom of the heap is Salwa, pushed down by misogyny, corruption and racism, struggling to survive on her wits.

The camera follows Mostafa through smoggy streets and shabby apartments, chasing connections made by pimps and politicians. Meanwhile a bigger national story is unfurling, as change stirs in Tahrir Square and beyond. Even so, this is not a film for idealists: hope is still spread thin.

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