Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (United Kingdom, 2012)

March 06, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Poster

Arguably, the biggest hurdle to clear for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is its title. Let's be frank - how many viewers will be excited by the prospect of seeing a movie about salmon fishing in the Middle East? And the name is neither allegorical nor misleading. This film is in fact about salmon fishing in Yemen. (I don't know why it is referred to as "The Yemen" - never heard that one before.) But it's also a ridiculously sweet love story and a light drama about people opening up and embracing faith. Call me a sentimentalist, but I enjoyed myself - even during the scenes when there was a lot of talk about fish.

It's not a stretch to say the movie works in large part because of the charm and sparkle of the three leads: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas. McGregor plays Dr. Fred Jones, a fish expert with Asperger's (suddenly a popular condition for movie characters) whose marriage to Mary (Rachael Stirling) has grown stale. Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the British representative of a very rich sheikh (Amr Waked) and the lover of a British officer (Tom Mison) who has been declared MIA in Afghanistan. Scott Thomas is Bridget Maxwell, the P.M.'s publicity officer, who sees the election and P.R. implications of every incident. Fred and Harriet are thrown together when they are recruited to work on the sheik's dream project of "importing" salmon fishing to Yemen. Fred, while admitting it's "theoretically" possible, likens it to a manned mission to Mars. Nevertheless, he is intrigued and accepts project management for the massive, 50-million pound endeavor. Along the way, he and Harriet fall in love, but their relationship is fraught with difficulties no less daunting than getting farm-raised salmon to run upstream in the mountains of Yemen.

The film's central relationship between the shy, socially awkward Fred and the upbeat Harriet is easily Salmon Fishing in the Yemen's most satisfying and sellable point. The peculiar alchemy that determines the success or failure of romantic entanglements in a production of this sort is effective. McGregor and Blunt click, making viewers immediately more forgiving of the film's shortcomings. An added incentive to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is Kristin Scott Thomas, whose skewering of those who perform spin control and P.R. for politicians is as pointed as anything recently seen on screen. She's ruthless and very funny. On the strength of her scenes alone, one could get away with labeling this as a comedy.

There are, of course, details about salmon, fishing, Yemen, and the difficulties of achieving the sheik's improbable dream. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who wrote Slumdog Millionaire as a similar brew of romance, drama, and wit), adapting the novel by Paul Tordayk, has wisely elected to keep exposition to a minimum - we get enough to grasp what's happening but not so much that we start wondering if the second hand on our watches has stopped. There are a couple of unnecessarily distracting subplots - one which concentrates on the fate of Harriet's lover and another that focuses on attempts to sabotage the sheik's project - that feel more tacked-on than organic to the main story. Nevertheless, on balance, it all works.

Director Lasse Hallstrom has developed a reputation for being able to uncover the right balance between the rational and the emotional. His movies are often viewed as sentimental but they eschew over-the-top melodrama in favor of a more understated flavor. The successes of his early career, from My Life as a Dog to The Cider House Rules, have given way to more pedestrian efforts over the past decade. Although Salmon Fishing in the Yemen could not be called "a return to form," it is a more respectable endeavor than, say, Dear John or Casanova.

My advice: ignore the title. Don't worry about being subjected to 105 minutes of dry material about fishing. Don't expect countless extended scenes of people lazily casting and reeling (there are a few of these, but all are brief). Instead, look forward to a nicely crafted love story, some beautifully photographed establishing shots, and an ending that is satisfying in an old-fashioned kind of way. By any name, this is a pleasant diversion.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (United Kingdom, 2012)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1