Tom Tykwer (2016)
Alan Clay, a middle-aged American IT salesman, travels to Saudi Arabia to pitch a holographic teleconferencing system to the king and his court. Alan is depressed. He’s recently divorced. He can no longer afford to finance his only daughter’s higher education. The events in A Hologram for the King take place, according to Wikipedia, before the Arab Spring and in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, which is largely responsible for Alan’s financial difficulties. Perhaps Tom Tykwer’s screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’s 2012 novel makes explicitly clear that it’s 2010 but I didn’t register this as I was watching. And the film’s agreeably striking opening does the opposite of give the audience its bearings: Tom Hanks’s business-suited Alan performs a paraphrase of Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ in what’s then revealed to be a dream sequence.
This isn’t the movie’s only tricksy divertissement. The eventual pitch of the holographic software is a genuinely entertaining highlight. There are occasional surreal curlicues: skyping his daughter Kit (Tracey Fairaway), Alan’s concern about her nicotine habit is so strong that smoke issues from Kit’s end of the video conversation and through his laptop into the air of Alan’s hotel room. These are, however, decorations to the narrative. So too the (less inspired) running jokes: the king’s Godot-like absenteeism; flagrant or resourceful flouting of the country’s alcohol laws; chairs collapsing under Alan. A Hologram for the King is really all about the protagonist’s negotiating a mid-life crisis and finding light at the end of the tunnel.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel notes in early scenes aren’t encouraging, when Alan discovers that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is full of Arabs, that local services aren’t up to scratch, and so on. It’s both a relief and a problem that the resemblances between Hologram and Marigold are short-lived. The spectacle of KSA, unlike that of India in John Madden’s movie, is far from idealised. The hot, parched atmosphere and the miles-high, unpopulated skyscrapers of Riyadh are depressing. It’s very easy to sympathise with Alan’s low spirits as he beholds panoramic desert while one of his hosts outlines plans to create another metropolitan complex built on sand. But Alan’s perspective on Saudi Arabia is revealed to be an expression of his jaundiced state of mind. He’s troubled by a growth on his back, which is also a chip on his shoulder – indeed, the seat of all his negative feelings. Once he’s had the cyst removed (a biopsy reveals pre-cancerous cells) and fallen in love with Zahra, the beautiful Saudi doctor who performs the operation, Alan’s view – of the world and of the country he’s in – is transformed.
Zahra (Sarita Choudhury) also transforms Alan’s ideas of Saudi womanhood. For a start, she’s a female doctor and not just highly educated but sophisticated. Although she wears the hijab at work, her face isn’t veiled. She’s a wife and mother but in the process of getting divorced, so a kindred spirit in that sense too. Alan and Zahra go scuba-diving together – both topless, so that anyone watching from a distance will assume they’re two men. They make love. At the end of the film, Alan contacts Kit to tell her that his firm lost the IT tender to a Chinese rival but that he’s going to stay on in Saudi. He’s got a new job, which will pay well enough to allow Kit to resume her college studies. The last shot of A Hologram for the King shows Zahra welcoming Alan into her apartment. The happy ending blithely ignores any cultural obstacles there may be to the lovers enjoying an easy life together in KSA. And, to this viewer, Riyadh looked just as soul-destroying as it did before.
Tom Hanks is admirable – again. He makes Alan and his story a lot more engaging than they might otherwise be. He gives the character likeability and, for much longer than the film deserves, credibility too. His skill and judgment elevate the mostly dim comedy. He never overdoes Alan’s hectic anxiety: a film of thirty or forty years ago with this kind of scenario would likely have been a Jack Lemmon vehicle: imagining how he would have played an Alan made me appreciate Hanks all the more. As Zahra, Sarita Choudhury is all right but not varied enough. I don’t want to commend conventional women’s wear in KSA but Choudhury’s beauty is more remarkable and expressive before she slips into something more comfortable. Sidse Babett Knudsen plays a Danish woman working for one of the king’s senior staff. She’s amusing in her first scene with Hanks and it’s a rather clever reversal of audience expectations that the relationship between her and Alan doesn’t progress far. (I should say that I had to look away from part of their screen time together, which was strobe-lit.) A Hologram for the King is the second time that Tom Hanks and Tom Tykwer have worked together, after Cloud Atlas: another of the cast of that film, Ben Whishaw, contributes a tiny, deft cameo as part of the presentation when Alan and his team are trying to sell their holographic wares. The trio of youngsters who make up the rest of the IT team (David Menkin, Christy Meyer, Megan Maczko) are dreary, though not unconvincingly so.
The standout supporting performance comes from Alexander Black, a young American actor new to me. He plays Alan’s Saudi driver, Yousef. This largely ’humorous’ character could have been a pain but Black is witty from the start and increasingly nuanced. Yousef spent time as a student in America and Alan, before Zahra has worked her magic, encourages him to get out of KSA and back to USA. Black makes Yousef’s reply – Saudi Arabia is his home, he hopes to help bring about cultural change from within – appealingly modest and dignified. Yousef, on the run from a husband who suspects him of carrying on with his wife, takes refuge with his family in the mountains, and Alan goes along for the ride. On arrival, he takes photographs of the landscape. One of the other men comments on this and asks if Alan works for the CIA. Only part-time, replies Alan, and finds a gun pointing at him. The moment is botched in that the suspicious man speaks passable English when he asks the question but seems to have forgotten it by the time Alan’s misguided attempt to be funny is explained. But Alexander Black gives just the right weight to Yousef’s advice to Alan not to joke about that kind of thing. The film’s most pleasing indigenous detail is the animal miniature in Yousef’s dilapidated car: a nodding camel.
23 May 2016