When Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a loopy satire about England’s efforts to bring salmon fishing to the Middle East for political reasons, was unveiled last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, initial reviews used the words “broad,” “uneven,” “undemanding,” “syrupy” and “contrived.” But as comedy sinks lower by the day, this charming little film by polished director Lasse Hallstrom looks better all the time.
Hallstrom may have suffered an unjust setback in popularity recently, but the veteran director of such diverse accomplishments as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat has lost none of his wit, visual artistry or skill at moving a story along with grace, constantly surprising the viewer with unexpected narrative choices. The premise is wickedly, delightfully preposterous: An amiable billionaire sheik (Amr Waked), with a passion for salmon fishing whenever he visits his estate in the ruggedly gorgeous highlands of Scotland, is convinced the sport creates a spiritual connection between people and nature. Determined to introduce it to his subjects in the parched desert of Yemen as a beneficial gesture of peace, he hires a beautiful, stuffy business representative and investment consultant in London named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) to implement his crazy scheme.
First, she goes to Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), an uptight, anal-retentive academic buffoon from the Royal Department of Fisheries who walks into glass walls. Jones declares Yemen too hot to accommodate salmon and dismisses the project as a waste of time. But Harriet is a determined little crumpet who appeals to the British prime minister’s PR adviser, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a ballsy, scene-stealing performance as a chain-smoking harridan who makes grown men shake and regimes collapse). Ever the apple-polishing opportunist on the lookout for front-page news to make the British government look heroic, Maxwell sees salmon fishing as a coup to soften Arab-Euro relations, and endorses the idea enthusiastically. With Harriet’s sexy charisma and the sheik’s offer of $80 million, Jones gives in, outlining a plan to construct a dam and export 10,000 British salmon to the desert from the North Sea to establish hatcheries. The big tension is getting farm salmon to swim upstream and create a new fishing industry in what was once a dry riverbed. The salmon offer massive resistance, and so do the sheik’s military opponents, a gang of Muslim terrorists who threaten him with treason for insulting their ancient customs with new-fangled Western ways.
As the obstacles increase and tensions multiply, so do the feelings of Alfred and Harriet, two lonely, unfulfilled Brits who are forced to rethink their positions on fishing and the possibility of romance. Her soldier boyfriend has been reported missing in action. His wife has deserted him and their stagnant marriage for a job in Geneva. Together they gain a new priority for life and love as he changes from a dull, humorless government puppet into a forceful lover and she overcomes her bureaucratic rigidity to find her inner beauty as a desirable woman.
McGregor may seem miscast in his Henry Higgins cardigan sweaters and preppie haircut, even wearing pajamas during sex—nothing short of revolutionary for him—but he has never looked healthier and handsomer, or acted with more appealing comic looseness. Blunt is funny, adorable and endearing. Their chemistry is so obvious that their eventual move from business to bedroom is as welcome as it is inevitable. And the always-estimable Scott Thomas—cold, marble-hard and hilarious—steals every scene, even when she’s off-screen, sending scorched e-mails with sarcastic instant-cartoon messages.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was based on a book by Paul Torday that viciously parodied the lunacy of British foreign-relations policies in the Middle East and ended with the British prime minister buried at the bottom of the Red Sea. Hallstrom, a director who favors happy endings, diplomatically softened the book’s political comic bluntness, but the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, keeps the barbs sharpened enough to sustain interest.
The question persists: Who wants to see a movie about salmon fishing? But it’s a spirited, eloquent film—delightfully offbeat, deliciously different, and well worth investigating.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (PG-13) ★★★★☆