Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is a buttoned down man living a buttoned down life. He works as a scientist at the Department Of Agriculture & Fisheries, working on projects that will only be of interest to a tiny few fishermen and wishes nothing more than to be left alone to get on with his studies. Outside his job his marriage is stuck in a rut, where it feels like things have reached an end, but nobody wants to say it.
Things begin to chance when he’s forced to go to a meeting with Harriet (Emily Blunt), who looks after the UK holdings of a ridiculously wealthy sheikh (Amr Waked). The sheikh has a dream – to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen. Without spending any time thinking about it, Fred brands the project ludicrous and decides the sort of person who’d want to do must be incredibly selfish, putting their passions ahead of their people.
However when the Prime Minister’s press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) decides salmon fishing in the Yemen is the feel-good middle-east story of UK-Arab co-operation that’s needed after more bad news from Afghanistan, Fred is pretty much forced to start working on the sheikh’s dream. He soon discovers that the Yemeni leader isn’t the arrogant man with more money than sense that he’d expected, and as he delves deeper into the project, he realises that bringing fish to the desert may just be possible, and that with a little bit of a leap of faith, it’s could be about more than just one man’s £50 million hobby. And then there’s Harriet, who Fred slowly falls for, but with any possible romance between them complicated by her three-week-boyfriend having been deployed to Afghanistan.
As Salmon Fishing In The Yemen comes from the director of Dear John and Chocolat, Lasse Hallstrom, you might expect this to be overly sentimental tosh. However many of Hallstrom’s films, such as Cider House Rules and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, do have a bit of an edge to them in amongst the syrup, and that’s true here. He’s helped in that by a script from Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours’ Simon Beaufoy, which may not completely overcome some of the issues with bringing Paul Torday’s novel to the screen, but has enough meat to raise this above your run of the mill rom-com – even if Hallstrom can’t resist dolloping on plenty of corn.
Perhaps the film’s boldest but most successful gamble is making McGregor’s Fred Jones a bit of an ass. Early on I was wondering whether the film was going to fall flat due to Fred going beyond just being a small man living a small life and into him being a bit of an arrogant prig. His early dealings with Blunt’s Harriet are prickly and I started to dislike his dismissive egotism, but oddly this works extremely well when Fred starts off on his journey to becoming a bigger and better man. It becomes a real journey for him, and thanks to a strong performance from McGregor there’s something personal at stake by the time the movie ends. It doesn’t hurt either that even when Fred’s an ass, he has a good sense of humour.
Blunt and Kirstin Scott Thomas also put their all in, with the latter in particular going full force as the never take ‘no’ for an answer press secretary. However it’s Amr Waked as Sheikh Muhammed who’s the most interesting character. Although he sometimes veers too close to being a generic mystical foreigner who must teach the blinded westerners how to see again, he charts an interesting course of a man with a grand vision that’s perhaps too big for others, and even himself sometimes, to see.
The movie’s politics are sometimes a tad muddy, and the film, unlike the book, never really gets a handle on the fact there’s a farcical quality to the central idea of taking salmon to the Yemen. By the end it wants us to cheer the idea of fish swimming upstream by relating it to the situation of the characters, in the hopes you’ll ignore the fact they’ve just spent £50 million on something that they never give a good reason for. There’s talk of helping the locals and big visions, but it never really deals with it properly.
However what does work is the central relationship between McGregor and Blunt, who come together for a very British romance of having unspoken feelings and wanting to do the right thing, while not make things difficult for anyone else. It becomes one of the film’s more interesting questions, whether the ‘right’ thing is what’s right for you, right for others involved or what you feel you ought to do?
By the end it does all get rather sentimental but it works and puts a smile on your face. If you’re in need of a decent date movie, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen certainly fits the bill.
Overall Verdict: Lasse Hallstrom might not be able to resist ladling on the syrup, but McGregor and Blunt are great and their romance works, even if there are still a few issues with the central idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac