Tom Tykwer’s tale of a struggling sales rep tasked with sealing the deal of his life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on the surface a story of a clash of cultures, and in the world of films, it’s under such predicaments that alarm bells immediately start ringing in my head. You know the drill: folk from two disparate cultures collide, initially struggle to understand one another, but with the passing of time come to understand and more importantly respect each other and each other’s ‘ways’ – each learning important life lessons about themselves in the process.
Yes, there is a bit of that. I don’t think it’s possible to take two so apparently differing cultural approaches and expect any sort of film narrative to develop without at least addressing such a backdrop, particularly when one considers the rather extreme peculiarities of such a repressive regime as exists in Saudi Arabia.
It’s refreshing therefore that A Hologram For The King (AHFTK) is not purely a vehicle for smoothing U.S / KSA diplomatic relations, but contains a simple, rather poignant story within it too.
Tom Hanks is as ever well cast as the man charged with leading the film’s charm offensive, portraying Alan, a man whose current life experience is one of dissatisfaction, bordering on desperation at times; hence, here he is, a stranger in a strange land attempting to nail the big deal; not for some huge personal financial gain it should be added, but to kick-start payments once again for his daughter’s temporarily stalled college education.
It’s a situation that she seems perfectly comfortable and understanding about, but it is nonetheless a pressured scenario in Alan’s mind, exacerbated by the ever-looming shadow of his ex-wife, who, it’s fair to say, possesses little faith in Alan’s ability to come up with the goods.
Right now, a long way from the comforts of home, he could do without any such anti-cheerleading in his ear.
Entering into the unknown, Alan and his I.T team need to prove their worthiness to be the prospective high-tech holographic presentation kit suppliers to the King of Saudi Arabia himself.
In theory it’s a quick in and out job and with a little luck, should put a smile on everyone’s face, be that the King, Alan, his wife or his micro-managing boss; only, this is Saudi Arabia, and with the King’s daily whereabouts unpredictable at best, Alan must wait things out, powerless, despite his protestations to anyone that will listen, to do anything about it.
It’s in these periods of waiting that AHFTK flourishes as a piece, for ultimately, this is not really a film about achieving goals or proving yourself to be the best, it’s a personal journey for Alan as he attempts to stay on top of things. Through a sequence of interactions with an assortment of colourful characters, inadvertently he is able once again to re-discover himself.
Alexander Black plays Yusef, a man dicing with death due to a clandestine fling he is having with a married woman. He’s inadvertently become Alan’s personal driver, a job that wouldn’t even exist were Alan able to peel himself out of bed each morning and not miss his scheduled shuttle bus.
Sarita Choudhury plays Zahra, initially Alan’s doctor, but whose charms steadily work their magic upon Alan’s impressionable self.
There are shades of Lost In Translation about AHFTK, and if one can get over the portrayal of a country with massively dubious, oppressive human rights issues as sanitised and ‘a bit quirky,’ and take it for what it’s probably intended to be, a re-assuring story of life-affirmation in the most unexpected of places, then it’s a perfectly decent piece of work, anchored ably as ever by the excellent Tom Hanks.