Director: Lasse Hallström
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked
Plot: A cynical fisheries expert is employed by a sheikh to bring salmon to the Arabian Desert, but discovers that realising this seemingly impossible dream will change his life forever.
Fishing is often reported as being the biggest participation sport in the UK which is surprising given the widespread appeal of football to people of all ages. Even so, making a film based around a bloke sitting by a river would arguably be like watching paint dry for many, so adding some romance, drama and an exotic location certainly helps. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen sounds like the most random title ever, but does the premise of moving fish into a desert make for an entertaining movie?
Alfred ‘Fred’ Jones (MacGregor) works as a fisheries expert for the British government, giving advice on the country’s fish stocks and how to farm them effectively. UK-based consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) is tasked with representing rich Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed (Waked), who wants to realise his dream of being able to go fishing in his backyard. The minor detail which he hopes Harriet can help with, is that the area in which the fish need to be deposited, is surrounded by desert. Harriet sends an email to Fred asking for his help, but he flatly refuses and dismisses the plan as unfeasible and ludicrous. Meanwhile, at the Prime Minister’s office, press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) is desperately looking for a positive story to run, in order to deflect public opinion away from the ongoing war in Afghanistan. She tasks her team to find something through search engines and one of them sends through some information about the email exchange between Harriet and Fred – Patricia decides to pursue it further.
The story of Anglo-Arab cooperation is thereby pounced on by the British government, with the blessing of the Prime Minister. Patricia contacts Fred and his employers who in turn persuade him to take on the challenge as a duty to his country. Fred is simultaneously going through a period of marital strife, as his wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) is becoming increasingly estranged and uses a business trip to Geneva as a veiled statement that she wishes for them to separate. Meanwhile, Harriet’s love life is equally fraught – she has been dating soldier Tom (Robert Mayers) for a few weeks, but then he is ironically posted to (presumably) Afghanistan. As Fred and Harriet being working together, Fred finds himself falling for his attractive colleague, although she is unsure about her feelings, Harriet becomes worried when Tom goes missing in action. The project itself begins with a few hitches, but once a suitable area of water is determined and the supply of fish is attained, the plan finally starts coming together. However, it becomes clear that the sheikh’s plan does not have the entire support of the local tribesmen.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is and only could be a quaint, British romantic comedy-drama. There isn’t anything ground-breaking or different from countless similar films of the same calibre. The usual British wit is evident throughout, but these moments are sadly few and far between. Paul Torday’s novel of the same name won the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing but, as we have seen time and time again, film adaptations do not always live up to the hype of their literary parent. There is a barrage of information about salmon fishing that is packed into the first half an hour or so – this sets up the audience so that we aren’t carried off on a rogue rip tide when trying to understand the logistics of the plan. Thankfully it isn’t preachy or condescending and doesn’t linger so much as to take away from the plot itself – it is in fact all done in quite an entertaining way. Once the technical details have been dispensed with, the style of the film is entirely what you would expect with its mostly gentle comedy and straightforward story which never really springs any surprises.
Ewan McGregor, having played a plethora of English and American characters, here plays a Scot which he appears to be more comfortable with. Even when he puts on his pseudo-American-Perth accent, he never really looks at home so it makes a nice change to see McGregor back on home turf. Emily Blunt, whose film career is still on the up with starring roles across various genres, is well cast as consultant Harriet. Blunt is a talented actress and the hope is that she continues to show her versatility without descending into Jennifer Aniston/Katherine Heigl territory, by getting typecast in romantic comedies – even though she’s clearly proficient in this area. Out of all the few genuinely amusing moments, it is Kristin Scott Thomas who gets all the best lines. In fact, most of the witticisms are typed on her computer as her character Patricia has a series of instant messenger conversations with the Prime Minister that supposedly mirrors the sardonic wit of In the Loop’s Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), but is in effect pale in comparison – this is a rom-com after all. Lasse Hallström’s direction and Terry Stacey’s cinematography create a scenic tour of the film locations of Scotland and Morocco, but the script isn’t nearly as enjoyable.
Paul Torday’s novels following Salmon Fishing in the Yemen feature a man who drinks himself to death (The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce) and then a novel about schizophrenia and racism (The Girl on the Landing), so it could have been worse. Salmon Fishing might be a rather wishy-washy affair with token drama that seems to have been shoved in, but it’s a decent film and a good tourist advert for the Atlas Mountains.