Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writers: Simon Beaufoy (screenplay), Paul Torday (novel)
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Amr Waked
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, as the name suggests, is the story of a man with the impossible dream of bringing fly fishing to the desert. Director Lasse Hallström has a similarly impossible dream of making a film that is a feel good story, an examination of faith, a look at British-Middle Eastern relations, biting political satire and a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, due to its overreaching scope, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, while highly enjoyable in parts, ends up being an uneven and ultimately underwhelming movie.
The film devotes the most time and is most successful with its romantic subplot. Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is an expert on salmon who is reluctantly recruited to take the lead on this project, despite the fact that he’s convinced it will never work. The project comes along right as his personal life is falling apart. His wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) decides to take a job in Geneva without even consulting him about it, deciding that the time apart will be good for both of them.
Dr. Jones has to work alongside the lovely Harriet (Emily Blunt), who is the assistant to the sheikh financing the salmon project. Harriet is dealing with her own problematic love life as her boyfriend of three weeks, Capt. Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), is called up to the front lines in Afghanistan.
Dr. Jones and Harriet get off to a rocky start working together, since he tends to be a bit humorless and rough around the edges, but eventually the two bond over their passion for the work and their respect for Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked), who is a soft spoken, unorthodox visionary.
While the film is successful on portraying Harriet and Dr. Jones’ chaotic love lives and their strange bond, it is less successful in examining the sheikh and the Yemen culture at large. Sheikh Muhammed is portrayed as an almost god-like figure, benevolent and peaceful and trusting that this impossible dream of his is the necessary step to bring a hopeful new future to his people. There is no depth or nuance to the character in the limited amount of screen time he gets, which keeps him from feeling like a real person. It’s hard not to see him at times as a “noble savage” type character who exists in order to teach the British characters valuable life lessons.
On the opposite side of that, the group of people in Yemen who oppose him are portrayed as cartoonishly evil. They believe that this salmon project is Muhammed’s attempt to bring the Western culture to their land, ruining their culture and dishonoring God. They border on terrorist stereotypes as they decide acts of violence are the best way to shut down this project.
The film also attempts to establish a discussion about faith between Dr. Jones and Sheikh Muhammed. Jones doesn’t believe in the project from the onset because of the number of hurdles that must be overcome and the number of uncertain variables. He doesn’t think the salmon will survive the trip to or be able to adjust to the warmer climate in Yemen. The sheikh keeps trying to convince him to have some faith, which is a foreign concept to a man of science like Jones. The faith-science debate that goes on between these two men from very different cultures is overly ham-handed and simplistic.
While its look at Yemen falls flat, the film’s jabs at British politics and bureaucracy add some of the best laughs to the film. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a great performance as Patricia Maxwell, the British prime minister’s press secretary. Maxwell is the one fast tracking the salmon fishing project in order to gin up some positive publicity for the prime minister. Scott Thomas’ performance is reminiscent of Jane Lynch’s role on Glee, injecting a healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism into the film to keep it from feeling too sappy or too lightweight. Most importantly though, she commands your attention every time she’s on screen and turns in an incredibly funny performance.
There are certainly a lot of great performances throughout the film. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt are both great and have a natural chemistry with each other. Amr Waked is also quite good as the sheikh, though I wish his character had been developed more.
Your enjoyment of this film will hinge on what you are looking to get out of it. If you are simply interested in a funny, quirky film with a decent, though predictable, romantic plotline, then you’ll most likely enjoy it. But if you were hoping the film delivered more on its examination of Yemen-English relations, its characterization of the Yemen people or its discussion of faith, then ultimately you’ll be disappointed.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.