At first, I thought the film was a drama about the United Kingdom reaching out to Yemen in the hopes of creating some positive PR. Then the script delved into questions of faith and religious certainty. Then it slipped the shackles of being a “message movie” in favor of a fairly straightforward romantic comedy.
I'm a big fan of films that defy easy categorization, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is structured in such a way that allows the film to just meander along until it ends in the most stereotypically crowd-pleasing way possible. That's besides the point though, because even if the filmmakers successfully balanced the romance with the message, the film still would have been one of the most boring cinematic experiences of my life.
The lovely and talented Emily Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, a wealthy consultant who is hired by a visionary Yemeni sheikh (the equally wonderful Amr Waked) to find a way to bring salmon to the desert region of Yemen.
Enter Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones, an extraordinarily square fisheries expert who works for the British government. The prime minister's press secretary (the always perfect Kristen Scott Thomas) pressures Jones into helping Miss Chetwode-Tabot realize the sheikh's dream of salmon fishing in the Yemen. All of this glacially paced set-up is fairly well done and charming, plus Blunt and McGregor are both enormously appealing actors. That's why it's such a shame when the script sinks into the typical peaks and valleys of a light romantic comedy.
McGregor's Dr. Jones is married to an extremely busy woman who makes love to him once every few months and then pats him on the back condescendingly like he was a dog who went potty in the proper place. Their marriage is comfortable, but without passion or fire, which allows Dr. Jones to cultivate his prickly, academic demeanor.
Blunt's Miss Chetwode-Talbot has just entered into a steamy relationship with a soldier about to go off to war in the Middle East and she's ecstatically in love. So when Dr. Jones and Miss Chetwode-Talbot head off to Yemen and start working on the project, it seems like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen might actually be about a difficult man and an unavailable women achieving the impossible as colleagues without romance entering into it, ala X-Files Mulder and Scully.
But as one unlikely plot contrivance after another conspires to bring them together, it becomes apparent that the film wasn't interested in telling the story of a man making his dreams come true with faith and perseverance (as the film is marketed to be). Instead, Salmon Fishing focuses on two attractive Hollywood actors who pretend to fall in love.
Director Lasse Hallstrom made the film Chocolat in 2000, so I know he's capable of making an achingly romantic film. And he made The Cider House Rules in 1999, so I know he's capable of making a message film with power and delicacy. But with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Hallstrom and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) have tried, and failed, to be so many different things. The result is a schizophrenic mess.
The title of the movie even suggests that it probably won't be very rousing, but there are many films that turn dry subject matter into an exciting motion picture (The Social Network and Moneyball spring to mind). Here's the thing: the greatest filmmakers in the world are magicians. They take hundreds of disparate pieces and combine them into a flawless whole without a single seam showing. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is all seams. It's a Frankenstein's Monster of a film whose greatest strength is the ability to lure viewers into a brief and dreamless sleep.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
1 1/2 Stars
Starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Mison.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.