A deeply romantic film hidden behind intersecting spheres of professional life, international relations and the personal politics of “pedestrian” life, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen proves that with the right director and the right concept, even familiar A-List actors can perform unexpectedly touching roles. Even though the premise’s eccentricities might have been better suited by a more darkly comic tone, the film’s insistence on love—and faith—despite all odds and reason yields modest fruit.
Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), the foremost fisheries expert in the UK, is approached by a consultant for an ultra-rich Sheik for a seemingly ludicrous goal: bring the sport of salmon fishing to the arid plains and mountains of the Yemen. At first completely in disbelief, Alfred refuses the project.
However, when the British Press Secretary frontlines the project as a shinning example of Anglo-Middle Eastern cooperation, Dr. Jones works begrudgingly with the consultant and her visionary client, overseeing the ludicrously expensive project of shipping thousands of salmon into an artificial habitat in the hopes that, with faith, they will bring the western sport to the dry country.
International conflict wreathes this story of hope against hope, an unlikely romance blossoming against almost certain failure in the process.
Ewan McGregor stars as Alfred Jones, a Ph.D. salmon expert with Aspergers syndrome, across from Emily Blunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the consultant representing the wealthy Sheik Muhhamad (Amr Waked).
Their performances, along with Kristen Scott Thomas’ masterful portrayal of the British press secretary, constitute the nexus which all other elements of the film orbit. Their highly nuanced performances of their character’s dichotomous professional and family lives serve the film almost more than the script, their disparate worlds giving the rifle its richest texture.
Despite the film’s far-flung settings and international context, it maintains an insular feel, never straying too far in tone from the cosmopolitan, contemporary lifestyles of the two stars and the salmon-fishing-as-spirituality theme typically personified in the Sheik.
Although the camera captures well the arid landscape of Yemen (actually Morroco) as compared to the hustle and bustle of London, the change for scenery for both leads never seems to have much weight, their tents hyper-modern, complete with ornamental lanterns and lavish interiors, and the people of Yemen outside of the Sheik seemingly as flat and inviting as a tourism advertisement might have you believe.
This predictable cushion is necessary for the awkward love between Fred and Harriet to flourish, which it does rather well, despite the residual encumbrance of the circumstances that led the two to meet.
The plot wavers on the precipice of significance in a larger context, from the UK governmental politicking to the radical Islamic tensions that crop up every so often to remind the viewer that the film is set in Yemen. However, the plot’s implications are never given enough weight, serving only as a McGuffin for Fred and Harriet’s love story.
Directed by Lasse Halstrom (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) off of a screenplay adaption of Paul Torday’s novel of the same name and written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen proves that love really does conquer all, including exciting premises, pre-existing relationships and turmoil in the Middle East. The $3 million box office gross stands as testament to that fact.