The casting is brilliant; all the characters appear sculpturally archetypal. Ben Kingsley is superb as Pascali, inhabiting the doomed, lonely, character completely. His emotional monologue/prayer to the sultan near the beginning and which ends the film are intoned like music. Helen Mirren is perfect as Pascali's friend, muse and as his unattainable virtue, the source of his fevered longing. Charles Dance (who always appears larger than life, even on film) is excellent as the archeological con-man who stumbles over something pure and is trapped by it. Steffan Gryff wields an immortal, cunning profile and along with Nadim Sawalha as the Pasha, behave and look like the Ottoman Empire's corruption made flesh.
The story is a seductive mix; a gorgeous setting blended with serious melancholy, punctuated by a minor adventure and all informed by a clear respect for history. Its a small story (as emotionally guarded stories invariably feel) but its a terrific film.
Pascali has watched, spied and reported his whole life for masters who are doubtless unaware of his existence at all. As this is slowly dawning on him he is suddenly swept up in an minor intrigue which crystalizes all of his wishes and hopes. He sees a chance for personal renewal, but to achieve it he has to overcome instincts developed from a lifetime of deceit in a petty, corrupt outpost of a dying empire.