German director Tom Tykwer has long been one of the more idiosyncratic and imaginative directors working in Europe. After his first major international success with 'Run Lola Run' (1998), he’s taken on a number of difficult projects, including his acclaimed adaptation of 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' (2006). With his latest film 'A Hologram for the King', he may have found a source material equal to his skills, in the words of equally idiosyncratic and imaginative writer Dave Eggers. Thankfully, it’s a combination that reaps genuine rewards.
Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) has gone through major personal and professional upheaval, losing his wife and his house and now working for an IT company he feels little passion for. He is given an opportunity to turn that around though when he’s sent to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to sell a new holographic conference system to the King for his new Metropolis of Economy and Trade. Thrown into a society he knows nothing about, and at the whim of a political system completely unknown to him, Alan is forced to find a new way to navigate his life - one that might finally give him the stability he needs.
From the moment it begins, ‘A Hologram for the King’ exudes a wicked sense of humour, a bombastic energy and a carefully calibrated moral compass. Rather than simply making Saudi Arabia comical and unusual in its differences to Western society, the film approaches its location with respect and detail, making Saudi Arabia as a whole just as integral a character as Alan. He’s very much a fish out of water, but as the story progresses, both he and the film open themselves up to accepting and understanding the country and its people. This may seem like an inconsequential detail, but it does do this with such respect (especially in its final act) that it highlights the inadequacy of this in other films.
Tykwer’s approach is constantly imaginative, whether that be the carefully composed editing and cinematography or the flashes of abstract when the film dips into Alan’s mind and dreams. This is the kind of film that would not have existed in the studio system, especially as it deals with a non-Western culture and its politics, an unusual story without a young central character and ultimately a relationship between two people above the age of 40. The advantage is that the film feels like an unimpeded creative achievement, and while it doesn’t hit the same heights as some of Tykwer’s other films, it ends up being a strangely fulfilling emotional experience.
Hanks has made a career on his natural charm, but in the past few years has been able to manipulate that charm in fascinating ways.
Much of this comes down to the cast. Reuniting with Tykwer after their work on the sublime ‘Cloud Atlas’ (2012), Tom Hanks is magical as Alan. Hanks has made a career on his natural charm, but in the past few years has been able to manipulate that charm in fascinating ways. This is probably thanks to the more interesting material he’s been taking on, and here he plays Alan’s salesman charms as both an asset and a hindrance. When Alan’s outward stability slips, Hanks comes into his own, delivering yet another nuanced and detailed performance. Lets hope he continues to step into independent films in the future, or at least projects that allow him to continue to flex his talents. The supporting cast are all uniformly wonderful, especially Alexander Black as Yousef, who accidentally becomes Alan’s driver and guide through Saudi Arabia. His genuine good nature and exquisite timing make him a terrific co-star for Hanks. Sarita Choudhury is also beautiful as Zahra, a doctor who helps Alan through a medical emergency and ends up finding a way to repair both of them.
‘A Hologram for a King’ is a gorgeous little film, bubbling with goodwill and delicate character. Tom Tykwer continues to be a fascinating director with a unique voice, and while this doesn’t have the rabble-rousing bombast of some of his earlier films, its quiet playfulness lifts the material where others would have let it fall flat, aided by a superb cast. It’s one of those films that leaves you with a spring in your step, warmth in your heart and plenty to think about the way we perceive and understand cultures that aren’t our own.