Mark Reviews Movies

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Rachael Stirling, Tom Mison

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content, and brief language)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 3/9/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2012

For the first two acts of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the screenplay gives us something of an anomaly: two characters, a man and a woman, who, despite being a man and a woman and, for the most part, available (Her boyfriend is presumed dead, and he's in a soulless marriage), seem to have no proclivity toward becoming romantically involved. Theirs is a wholly professional relationship, forced upon them by an absurd, improbable idea to introduce salmon to a desert valley in Yemen because a wealthy sheikh has a fondness for fishing.

One should just move past the irrationality of the idea. The movie acknowledges it. The characters know it; they even turn the title into a metaphor for a miracle. It's at once not the point and also the entire point of the movie, if that makes any sense.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is such a contradiction in and of itself—a sentimental bunch of hokum that arises out of a bureaucratic dilemma in which the public relations side of a government thinks the plan is good publicity without ever considering how bad the publicity will be if said plan fails, as just about every expert says it will. Inherently, these two concepts don't mesh well.

Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is a public employee in the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs who works in the fisheries division. For him, it's exciting work.

One day, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), whose firm represents the exorbitantly rich Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked), writes to Alfred with the idea of her client's impossible dream. It can't be done, the expert concludes and expects to have the issue left at that. Instead, Harriet goes well over his head and contacts Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of communications for the Prime Minister's office, who believes the idea is the perfect way to show the positive side of British-Arab relations when the public's focus is on wars and unrest in the region. After some prodding (Either he does the project or loses his job), Alfred joins the team to bring salmon to Yemen.

The story hinges on three events that make little to no sense in the context of what comes before them. First is the relationship between Harriet (whom Alfred constantly refers to as "Ms. Chetwode-Talbot," just so we know that excessive professionalism is one of his many quirks) and Alfred (whom Harriet is a bit more comfortable calling by his Christian name, just so we know she's far more relaxed than him). The wholly on-the-level association between the two is the only constant in the patchy opening acts, which rely heavily on characters repeating how ludicrous and yet how grand the sheikh's scheme actually is.

Alfred is married to Mary (Rachael Stirling), who is also a government employee who spends a lot of time abroad. Harriet has just begun dating an Army captain (Tom Mison) who is shipped off to battle. Neither relationship works out. Alfred and Mary married young and have hit a rut; Harriet's new beau goes missing in action. There's a somewhat sweet scene (The movie's sole one before it breaks down entirely) where Alfred arrives at Harriet's apartment after the news of the captain's apparent death has begun to settle, and while she believes he's only there to talk work, he's really only there to listen to her troubles. The only chemistry here is of the platonic variety; there's no sexual or romantic tension to be had.

Which makes the eventual turnaround all the more difficult to swallow. It also leads to the second problematic turn of events, which essentially has a character state, "You know that top secret mission where we thought everyone died? Well..." Now we have an out-of-left-field romance put into jeopardy by a painfully obvious contrivance. The third, which involves the sheikh's conflict with some fundamentalist terrorists in the region, is the movie's climax, a disaster that only serves to show how confused the priorities of the characters and the movie are (Are the fish all right?).

There's probably an acidic bit of satire hidden somewhere in the material, just as there's more than likely a genuinely heartfelt exploration of the marriage of two cultures—divided by politics and the ignorance of the worst of both sides but united by a shared interest—within it.  Simon Beaufoy's screenplay (based on the novel by Paul Torday) tries to have it both ways, and director Lasse Hallström, who is clearly and equally unsure about the tone of the story, really has no choice but to put the page to the screen and hope for the pieces to fall into place. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen doesn't even come close.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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