With a light touch, the charmingly slight film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is set against the backdrop of a seemingly impossible task. Ewan McGregor stars as Dr. Alfred Jones, a mid-level British government employee. While the very definition of a reserved stiff-upper-lipped Englishman, engaged in a very proper marriage to a banking executive, he is also an authority on fly fishing and salmon behavior. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s press secretary (played by the bullish and cynical Kristin Scott Thomas), due to some recent bad press from the war in Afghanistan, is looking for a bright fluffy human interest issue that her government can support. Culling through a backlog of possibilities, she comes across the request of a Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) in Yemen who fell in love with fly fishing and wants to populate a river in his home country with salmon. He has petitioned help from a consulting firm, who have subsequently petitioned the government. Emily Blunt plays Harriet, the liaison working with McGregor’s character. She has a new budding relationship with a handsome soldier who is called into active duty and finds this project a useful distraction from his absence. So, together, the fish expert and the consultant are tasked with making this project work.
On its face, this seems like an odd premise for a film. Honestly, dealing with engineering feat of transporting fish to a stable habitat merely for sport might seem esoteric. But as this story unfolds, it works as a quirky metaphor for the interpersonal relationships between the characters.
McGregor’s character is forced into overseeing this project by his boss. So, out of frustration, he blurts out that he would need 50 million dollars to transport 10,000 salmon thousands of miles across the globe and create a dam in the mountainess region of Yemen where it might be cold enough for the fish to survive. Bankrolled by the Sheikh, who has resources far beyond what a bureacrat is used to, steps are taken extremely quickly. After Alfred jokingly says he needs the top Chinese experts in fisheries, they are flown into his office the next day with no notice. Guessing that maybe wild English salmon may be transported, a furor amongst two million English fisherman explodes in the press. Events like these pepper his project throughout.
Meanwhile, feelings start to develop between Dr. Jones and Harriet. He is married and very proper. She is still in the new flushes of love with her currently absent boyfriend. So, most of their time together is spent with a refreshing amount of mutual respect and believability. You may know where some of this is headed, but the way they relate is convincing.
Director Lasse Hallström is known for offbeat relationship studies. He became prominent in the film world initially for My Life As A Dog (1985). While he may be best known here in the United States for 1999′s The Cider House Rules (“Goodnight, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England.”), his resume boasts and impressive list of memorable films including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, The Shipping News, Dear John, and the criminally underappreciated Once Around. This latest effort feels very much of a piece with the rest of these works: romantic while not being sickly sweet, often about an unusual subject, and ever-so-slightly offbeat. If you have seen some of his films, you will know the tone of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It’s lighter than some of his other work, but quite charming.
And the acting is universally affecting. McGregor shifts between frustrated, caring, and smitten effortlessly. He’s odd in the way that bookish researcher types can be, but not without empathy. At one critical point while Blunt is stressed about the fate of her missing love, the simple kindness he shows in offering her a sandwich is genuine and sweet.
As the film is set against the idea of cultural change in Yemen, it is inspiring to see a broadening of horizons in a troubled part of the world. As the Sheikh, Waked is engaging as a Western-friendly reformer in his own land. Recently, Iran’s A Separation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. While this film is definitely much lighter in tone than that one, hopefully films like these can be used as ambassadors between countries to broaden understanding. No, this movie doesn’t address attitudes towards women in Yemen. And the issue of some Yemeni resistance to Western influence is only lightly touched upon. But being able to show that these places aren’t just faceless pits of chaos in the world has to be at least a small step in the right direction.
Charming, light, and sweet, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is worth your time.
Final Grade: B+