Great cast, funny script, in charming ‘Salmon’
Getting to hear the always-watchable Ewan McGregor act in his own Scots accent (more or less) is only one of the many small charms in Salmon Fishing In the Yemen. A clear-headed,yet open-hearted romantic comedy-drama about impossible dreams and unlikely alliances, the film is directed by Lasse Hallström with his usual touch of warm fuzziness, spiced up here with a dash of political satire, and a frisson of cross-cultural utopianism. But the themes never intrude too deeply on the film’s sneaky sense of fun.
Hallström is best known for his screen adaptations of modern literary classics like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. Here, he’s working with the somewhat lesser-known debut novel by Paul Torday, a longtime British businessman and part-time fisherman who has traveled in the Middle East. Working from an engaging script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty; Slumdog Millionaire), Hallstrom crafts a gentle-spirited love story that evolves against a tart comic backdrop of media-spinning political opportunism.
The still center of all the furor is McGregor’s Dr. Alfred Jones, a mild-mannered scientist and fish expert with the government fisheries department in London. A devoted angler, Fred is never happier than when he’s designing a new fishing fly, or out talking to the koi in his backyard pond, trying not to notice as his brisk businesswoman wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling), dashes off on another of her out-of-town business trips.
Then a bright young thing named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) contacts Dr. Jones with a proposal. She represents a global financial concern managing the considerable fortune of a Yemeni sheikh who wants to sink a few of his millions into a project to build a dam, create a permanent river out of a dry wadi, and introduce cold-water Scottish salmon into the desert of Yemen. Harriet is searching for someone to head up the project, but Fred immediately dismisses it as “fundamentally unfeasible.”
But Fred doesn’t reckon on the ferocious tsunami of energy and willpower that is Patricia Maxwell (the terrific Kristin Scott Thomas), press liaison to the Prime Minister. Desperate for some good news out of the Middle East, Patricia gloms onto the salmon project as a potential PR bonanza of international goodwill, and orders Fred’s boss to assign him to it. As derisive as he is, Fred finds Harriet patiently undaunted, whether he’s doodling a graph showing exactly how the fish will die, or making a preposterous request for a meeting with the Chinese architects of the Three Gorges Dam. (She gets him one.) Soon, the reluctant Fred and efficient Harriet are in a helicopter flying to a remote castle in Scotland to meet the sheikh at one of his international residences.
But Fred starts to come around when he meets Sheikh Muhammed (Egyptian actor Amr Waked, in a deeply charismatic performance). Younger than expected, philosophical, and with a cosmopolitan world view, the sheikh is not only tuned in to the Zen of fly fishing, he recognizes Fred as the designer of his favorite fly. His is a visionary plan to bring not only sport fishing, but life-giving water and a greenbelt to his desert people. As the action moves from Britain to the Middle East, matters are complicated not only by the soldier boyfriend (an appealing Tom Mison) deployed to Afghanistan that Harriet has promised to wait for, but by the sheikh’s rival factions in Yemen. But as the project evolves, both Fred and Harriet begin to reconsider the viability of impossible dreams.
As Fred, McGregor delivers an effective blend of shy diffidence with a streak of deadpan Scots orneriness. He and the winsome Blunt establish a nice rapport, although the most compelling, life-altering relationship in the movie may be the unexpected friendship between Fred and Waked’s savvy, scene-stealing sheikh. Actually, the two men and Harriet form an irresistible alliance against all odds that keeps the story humming—shepherded along by the divine Scott Thomas, peppering the action with a full arsenal of cynical wisecracks.
Hallstrom’s touch is light throughout, yet thoughtful in giving plenty of space to the story’s bittersweet moments. Droll dialogue and a likeable cast keep everything swimming along.
IN THE YEMEN
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Amr Waked. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.