Sunday, April 01, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

My movie-going companion asked me as the credits rolled whether Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was based on a true story. (It is in fact based on a novel by Paul Torday.) Though the setup (repressed Scottish scientist helps Arab Shiekh bring salmon to a desert country, falls in love) has the strangeness of real life, the movie is so intent on being nice to its characters and tying up loose ends that it's hard to imagine Salmon Fishing being anything other than a ready-made comedy. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) thinks he's happy enough in his government job, though his frequently absent wife (Rachael Stirling) seems to put up with him more than actually be married to him. Alfred doesn't want any part of investment advisor Harriet (Emily Blunt) and her interest in helping her client, a liberal Sheikh (Amr Waked) become a salmon fisherman without leaving home. The unlikely salmon project is pushed along by a brassy Prime Minister's aide (Kristin Scott Thomas) looking for good news from the Middle East as the war in Afghanistan goes sour. Salmon Fishing slaps one on the head with its message, a catch-all belief in the importance of faith when things get bad. It isn't clear whether or not the salmon (brought in from a fish farm when political pressure kills an attempt to secure wild salmon) will run upstream, and Harriet pines for an MIA soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison) even as she begins to be drawn to Alfred.

If you're not sure how any of these questions will resolve themselves then you've never seen a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom, champion of the pleasant and classy. I refer you to Chocolat or Something to Talk About, films that work very hard to take the audience on a journey that ends in the place you'd most expect. Hallstrom gets a hand here from his leads; McGregor is quite good as a man slowly waking up to life and Blunt gets to play a too-often hidden vulnerable side. As the Shiekh Amr Waked does provide a hint of something wilder. There's a glint in Waked's eye that makes us wonder just how far the Shiekh is reaching for his dream. (The Shiekh's anti-Western enemies are never individualized.) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, full of beautifully shot Scottish countryside, will transport audiences but only so far. The charm of its people makes two hours go down easily, but I wanted a little more of that salmon-loving Shiekh.


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