A film review by Craig J. Koban June 7, 2012


2012, PG-13, 113 mins.


Dr. Jones: Ewan McGregor /Harriet: Emily Blunt / Sheikh: Amr Waked / Patricia: Kristin Scott / Thomas / Robert: Tom Mison

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom / Written by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday.

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.  The film has got the words fishing and Yemen in its highly unusual and, quite frankly, uninviting title.  It’s also a film of that has a confluence of oddly eclectic ingredients: British and Yemeni politics; the passion of fishing and salmon aficionados; a man that suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome; New Age eco issues; and, most importantly, a tender love story between two highly unlikely people.  

To say that the central budding romance in the film is its true epicenter would be an understatement, but it’s the finest element in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, not to mention that it has a sort of infectious and inviting old-fashioned Hollywood aura that’s not in high abundance in films anymore.  The real audacious surprise of the film is how it places its love story within a highly unique geo-political backdrop. 

Based on the novel of the same name by Paul Torday and adapted by Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who won for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN stars Ewan McGregor (at his most effortlessly and disarmingly dorky) playing Dr. Fred Jones, the aforementioned Asperger sufferer that is one of the pre-eminent fishing experts in the U.K..  He has a loveless marriage with his wife, Mary (Rachel Stirling), but that’s perhaps attributed to the fact that Freddie’s true love is his work in the fishing industry.  “When things get tough in my life,” he confides at one point in the film, “I talk to fish.”  See what I mean. 

Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (played by the always luminous Emily Blunt) works at a management consultant firm that is under the employ of the wealthy Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (a calmly charming Amr Waked) that has a highly ambitious plan: as a fishing nut, he desperately wishes to introduce salmon fishing to his people of the Yemen hoping to, in the process, bring peace and prosperity to his country.  This somewhat incredulous story makes its way to the offices of the British prime minister and his press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a fire cracker performance of scathing ruthlessness) who believes that this is just the type of feel-good story that could take the British public's mind off of the war in Afghanistan and bridge the gap to a new age of Anglo-Arab cooperation and understanding. 

Of course, the PM wants this $50 million dollar endeavor to go through, as does the sheikh, which means that it will unalterably bring Harriet and Fred together into the mix.  Since Harriet works for the sheikh, it’s her job to recruit Fred for the important planning phase of the project, but Fred initially believes that importing 10,000 North Atlantic fish to one of the warmest and driest climates in the world is ridiculous.  He does concede, though, that it is “theoretically” possible, as a manned mission to Mars is as well (not impossible, but not easy).  Nonetheless, as Fred and Harriet meet with the sheikh and spend more time with him (not to mention being introduced to just how serious he is about the project), Fred grows to realize that the project just might work.  There are some snags along the way, though: transplanting all those fish greatly alienates the millions of fisherman in the U.K., not to mention that the sheikh’s people see this as the westernization of Yemen.  Even more complicated is that the stiff mannered and socially inept Fred is falling in love with Harriet. 



SALMON FISHING THE YEMEN has, as stated, an unusual triumvirate of themes that, by hook or by crook, seem to gel: the world of British and Yemeni politics merging peacefully – but sometimes problematically – together; the love affair between Fred (and fisherman in general) with salmon and the pastime of fishing: and finally the other love affair that Fred has with Harriet.  There is a global outreach to this film that, frankly, many other romance pictures don’t have.  We’ve seen so many genre films like this where the impediments to the prospective lovers coming together are sometimes woefully simplistic and meaningless (misunderstandings, other suitors, etc.), but this film cleverly shows Fred and Harriet form an improbable, but tender and sweet, relationship against the backdrop of something much larger and more significant.  How many other films have brought two people affectionately together over their mutual love for one another and for…fish? 

The performances need to have just the right balance of light comedy and earnestness for this type of bizarre material, and Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor develop a slow-simmering and low key chemistry that makes the journey of seeing them come together more intriguing and appealing.  McGregor has a field day playing his recessively mannered geek - dressed in plaids, introverted, and nervous and fidgety around others – that learns through his friendship with Harriet how to loosen up more.  Blunt has an ethereal glow that just instantly makes her a warm and inviting screen presence, but she has a tricky job of not overly telegraphing her developing feelings for Fred; it’s a subtly endearing performance that’s atypical for the usually sassy actress.  Counterbalancing Blunt and McGregor is Kristen Scott Thomas, who is a tour de force as the unscrupulous press secretary that will go to any lengths to manipulate her prey to get what she – and her PM – wants.  What’s amazing is how she makes her scheming control freak delectably droll as well.    

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is perhaps – pardon the pun – watered down with some contrived subplots, especially the ones involving Fred’s unhappy marriage and Harriet’s boyfriend, a handsome soldier that is called out for duty in Afghanistan.  Gee, I wonder if Fred will break up with his wife, which will make him available for Harriet?  Hmmm, I wonder if the soldier boyfriend will go MIA on the warfront, which will make Harriet available for Fred and unavoidably complicate matters latter?  Then there are some whitewashed attempts at providing intrigue in the script in the form of some faceless Muslim militants that try to sabotage the whole salmon import mission; this element is both heavy-handed and underdeveloped at the same time. 

Alas, these are minor quibbles, because I loved the whole outlandish journey of Harriet and Fred to their obligatory pre-end-credits embrace.  Yes, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is unyieldingly predictable, but the manner with which the story is crafted within the world of fishing enthusiasts and larger social-political dreams of the sheikh makes this an unanticipated and delightful surprise as far as romance films go.  That, and the film is intentionally bittersweet with two instantly likeable lead actors that we grow to root for on their path to love.  SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN marks a return to form for director Lasse Hallstrom, who recently made the forgettable romance film DEAR JOHN and previously helmed great films like THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, CHOCOLAT, WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, and the very underrated THE HOAX.  Hallstrom balances the simple and sentimental story of Fred and Harriet's love with the film’s political undertones, but he never lets the film become a sermon to real world dilemmas.  At its heart, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is a love story…a curious, peculiar, and unbelievable one, but one that’s brimming with surprises and feel-good warmth.  Like fishing itself, the film kind of has a calm and gentle manner that's soothing and pleasing.  

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