Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Reviewed by Marc Glassman
March 9, 2012


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Lasse Hallstrom, director
Simon Beaufoy, script based on the novel by Paul Torday
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Fred Jones), Emily Blunt (Harriet Chetwode-Talbot), Kristin Scott Thomas (Bridget Maxwell), Amr Waked (Sheikh Muhammad)

The buzz
The film adaptation of Paul Torday’s fine, funny epistolary novel drew cheers from a crowded premiere screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre during TIFF 2011. I know—I was there and watched as the Toronto crowd lapped up Lasse Hallstrom’s and Simon Beaufoy’s slightly sudsy reworking of a rather cheeky book. There was no doubt, though, that the audience was appreciative of the film’s gentle, humorous tone and mild digs at British imperialism in the Middle East during the heady early days of the 21st century.

The genres
Romantic comedy; political satire (though quite defanged)

The premise
The British government is looking for a good news story about their relationship to Arab countries in the Middle East. Bridget Maxwell, a tough and blunt speaking politico, with close ties to 10 Downing Street, is assigned the task of fabricating something that the mostly compliant mainstream press can savour. She discovers that a certain Sheikh Muhammad, who loves fishing, wants to stock the mountainous but dry region of Yemen with salmon—and enough water to make them swim upstream.

Enter Fred Jones, fisheries expert and pragmatist. He knows that what the Sheikh wants is practically impossible and certainly economically unfeasible. But suddenly he’s confronted with the indomitable Ms. Maxwell—and soon after, with the Sheikh’s personal British representative, the attractive and fashionable Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. For a man whose wife comments after they’ve had unsatisfying sex, “well, that ought to hold you for some time,” the combination of Bridget M and Harriet C-T is irresistible.

With the government’s backing and the Sheikh’s money, Fred gets to dream the impossible dream: maybe he can get salmon to climb a mountain for Muhammad. But with Arab terrorists poised to attack the Sheikh’s “Western” plot and faced with the sheer difficulty of turning part of Yemen into a veritable Scotland, Jones’ progress will inevitably be littered with problems. This is one big fish story that doesn’t swim easily towards a happy ending.

The performances
Hallstrom is an actor’s director so it’s no surprise that this film features some fine performances. Kristin Scott-Thomas is absolutely hilarious as Bridget Maxwell; it would be interesting to see her play Maggie Thatcher in another decade or so. Brilliant as Young Victoria a few years ago, Emily Blunt seems to have found herself as an actor. She’s fine as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, a young beauty who slowly brings out the charms of Fred Jones. Ewan McGregor is good as Jones but he’s not as appealing as he was in Beginners last year. McGregor never seems comfortable as a lead; perhaps he’ll grow into a character actor as he ages. The TIFF audience loved Amr Waked’s portrayal as the Sheikh and I expect the general public will embrace his genial, philosophical persona.

The direction
Hallstrom was once a fine director but it’s many years since his success with the bittersweet Life as a Dog and Cider House Rules. Since Chocolat, he’s been content to spin winsome tales that sometimes engage the broad North American market—the awful Dear John was a hit just a year ago. He’s back in more palatable turf with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen but this director has long since abandoned any claims to auteur status.

The skinny
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen features good to great performances and a nicely judged if slightly predictable plot. The film is enjoyable but it could have been quite a bit stronger. Only readers of the novel will know that Salmon Fishing used to have a bite to it.