Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Review
It’s not going to change the world or revolutionise filmmaking, or even likely to be remembered in twelve month’s time, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a perfectly respectable British romantic comedy drama of which there are generally far too few. Swedish director Lasse Hallström find himself back in territory similar to his 2000 adaptation of Chocolat - being the story of a tentative and unexpected relationship begun against the backdrop of personal upheaval. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt make for a genuinely appealing couple, and there are enough quirks and flourishes to keep the film from becoming too sappy.
Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is a quiet, fastidious civil servant whose work deals with the UK’s fisheries; he also happens to be an academic on the subject. His mundane existence, consisting of work and a marriage on autopilot, is upended by the arrival of Harriet (Blunt), representing a Yemeni Sheikh obsessed with fishing, who’s had the apparently insane idea of starting up a salmon fishery in his own country and has a blank cheque to back it up. Convinced it’s utterly impossible, Jones slowly comes around to the idea – just as his feelings for Harriet similarly shift from hostility to positivity.
It would be easy - too easy - to deride Salmon Fishing as yet another wishy-washy British rom-com with a cute title that tries to disguise a familiar mixture of generic ingredients which limps along under the long shadow cast by Four Weddings and a Funeral. In actual fact a more pertinent touchstone here is Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero: the story of a corporate underling pushed far outside his comfort zone into an exotic environment he doesn’t understand to work with people who are alien to him, and ends up falling in love with both. There’s also a similar dash of whimsy (take the Middle Eastern terrorist dressed up in a kilt on a mission to assassinate the sheikh in Scotland for example), though Local Hero stands much taller in comparison for having the courage of its oddball convictions. Yet Salmon Fishing is still a decent stab at that familiar comedy staple, the fish-out-of-water (that’s the last of the fish puns, I promise).
Criticisms have been leveled at Kristin Scott Thomas’s Number 10 PR advisor, her snarky Thick of It-style political humour not always gelling with the main romantic thrust of the plot. While this may be true, her character does bring a welcome frisson of sparky wit to the screen and certainly earns a few good laughs, which nicely counterbalances the shifting humour of the central storyline when it strays into slightly darker waters in the final third. That said, there are some jokes which were just a bit too silly; for some reason I have difficulty imagining the PM using Instant Messaging to speak with his advisors, and these scenes feel like they were parachuted in to the film during post-production as a response to lukewarm audience test screenings.
Even if it is ultimately inconsequential, the film is a pleasant enough experience while it lasts, thanks partly to its reliable star pairing. McGregor may be far too handsome and charismatic to accurately play a civil servant – you can tell he’s supposed to be a boring old fart because he wears a cardigan at the start - but that doesn’t stop him from selling the character anyway. Blunt is equally fine, her prim façade gradually falling away as she begins to realize what this man has come to mean to her. The film could have taken a few more leaves from Local Hero’s book and tried to be a bit more adventurous in its storytelling, but director Hallström seems content to stay in the middle of the road - bar the odd random ‘fish-cam’ shot as we occasionally observe the action from the point of view of fish underwater. If that sort of oddness appeals, then Salmon Fishing might well reel you in (sorry).