Truth in titling: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is, indeed, about fishing for salmon in Yemen (or ‘the’ Yemen, as characters keep telling us – the title must be repeated about ten times during the course of the film.) Of course, Yemen is a desert country, with a total lack of indigenous salmon; the logistics of conducting the actual fishing forms the basis for the film’s story.
And surprisingly, there’s enough there to keep our interest. I was even disappointed when the film veered off track during the second half, becoming less about the fishing and adhering more to romance-movie formula. But even that stuff works: its second nature for director Lasse Hallström, who manages to maintain our interest throughout.
Salmon Fishing stars Emily Blunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, consultant to wealthy Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked). Muhammad, who lives part-time at a luxurious Scottish estate, has a love for salmon fishing, and wants to import it to his home country of Yemen. To that end, Harriet contacts fish expert Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) to discuss the feasibility of such a project.
It’s nonsense, he tells her. But the Sheikh is committed and wealthy, and Fred is forced to admit that the project may be, in theory, possible. Meanwhile, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), press secretary for the Prime Minister, has been seeking a ‘good story about the middle east’ to serve as a distraction; she lands on the salmon fishing, and guarantees the involvement of Fred, a government employee.
There’s plenty potential for story conflict here, but to add to the drama we have seemingly compatible male and female leads. Complications: Fred is married, and Harriet has a boyfriend. Further complication: Harriet’s boyfriend is missing in action in Afghanistan.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is based on the novel of the same name by Paul Torday, which was apparently more a political satire. The film seems to start off as satire, but by the end has morphed into a traditional romance. It’s still filled with some choice laughs, however, and offers a reasonably amusing time, even though the pacing lags during the final act.
McGregor, with a full Scottish brogue, is as good as he’s been in a long time, and Blunt is just fine as the delicate, conflicted Harriet. Waked, however, as the soft-spoken Sheikh, is the most engaging presence in the film: his character’s personal motivation, which is the basis for the film’s story, should have been given greater prominence.
Other supporting characters don’t fare so well. Tom Mison, as Harriet’s boyfriend, is someone we should really empathize with, but the character is so thinly sketched, and the actor so barely-there, that he literally disappears without anyone noticing. Scott Thomas is initially amusing as the brash, even vulgar, fast-talking politician, but by the end she has overstayed her welcome, and we wonder what she’s still doing there.
Director Hallström has made better films (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules) and more recently, worse ones (The Hoax, Dear John). Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the kind of material that’s right up his alley, and while he doesn’t hit this one out of the park, he’s created a warm, crowd-pleasing film that does at least partial justice to its title.