At least there's no hypocrisy here. As the title more than hints, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is all about a leap of faith, and faith is exactly what this picture requires of us. Make the leap, and you'll be delighted by a movie that's sugary goodness, a guilty pleasure. Don't, and you'll gag on a film that's cloyingly saccharine. The choice is yours. I made mine and, in mid-jump, found myself stretched way out in the fond hope of a safe landing. Did I get there? More later.
The source is the Paul Torday book, an epistolary novel that takes a sharply satiric bite out of Britain's body politic. No doubt with an eye to the North American market, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has dimmed the topical politics and consequently the trenchant satire, all the while ramping up the romance-comedy element. Director Lasse Hallstrom casts the piece accordingly, taking years off the novel's nerdy old protagonist and bringing in Ewan McGregor to play him. This is the sort of role that Hugh Grant used to get, and the sort of movie that Hugh Grant used to make – the cutesy Brit-pic, often loathed by the natives but popular abroad. In short, an export commodity.
When we first meet him, Dr. Alfred (Fred) Jones (McGregor) is a lowly scientist drifting in the backwaters of the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture. He receives a laughable e-mail from the laughably named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), an agent acting on behalf of a Yemeni sheik. Holed up in his Scottish castle, the sheik has the usual fat wallet, a less usual taste for fly-fishing, and an impossible dream: to transport salmon from British rivers to the wadis of his homelands. Oh, he also has £250-million (about $400-million) to invest in the scheme.
"This is a bloody joke," Fred types out in gleeful reply, but the PM's office begs to differ. Eager for a good news story from the embattled Middle East, the chief spin doctor (Kristin Scott Thomas) orders the Fisheries boys to play along. So cynical Fred is obliged to team up with the true-believing sheik, not to mention his fetching agent. From there, of course, it's just a question of which will hatch first – the romance or the salmon.
Admittedly, on the amorous front, Harriet is caught up with a new boyfriend, and Fred is bogged down in a stale marriage – so stale that his wife punctuates a round of mechanical sex with a blunt, "That should do you for a while." (His meek "Thank you" puts the pathetic into polite.) However, when both wife and boyfriend are packed off on separate trips, love's anglers are free to cast their lines, which McGregor and Blunt do with consummate ease and a pro's panache. They're fun to watch.
Of course, angling for salmon in the desert is a whole other matter, and the attendant complications – building the dam, finding the fish, navigating the bureaucracies, dealing with the political fallout – are the source of the novel's satire. On the screen, the humour gets prettified and the spectrum narrows, with most of the comedy falling somewhere between mildly engaging yuks and slightly off-putting farce. The engaging: Fred's conversion from sarcastic apostate to "this crazy enterprise just might come off." The off-putting: Scott Thomas's dizzying turn as the spin doctor, a performance pitched at the level of a shriek.
That's when faith enters the picture. The impossible dreamers need it, but so do we – to see charm in the silliness and sweetness in the schmaltz, to turn a blind eye when needed and keep an open mind when necessary. Yes, I made the leap, and I landed on the side of the believers – safely, but checking for bruises, amazed again at the way guilt's black-and-blue can swell the thin skin of pleasure.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
- Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
- Written by Simon Beaufoy
- Starring: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars