Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: movie review

'Salmon fishing in the Yemen,' based on a satirical novel, manages to lose the satire in damp whimsy despite a good cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

By , Film critic

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    Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor play a sheikh’s representative and a fisheries expert, respectively, in ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.’
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I'll say this much for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," it's got a catchy title. But beware of films with catchy titles. The films themselves usually don't live up to them.

Such is the case here, even though the source material, Paul Torday's eponymous novel, is highly regarded in England as a prime political satire. As directed by Lasse Hallström ("Chocolat") and written by Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire"), it's a soggy farce that not even its top-notch cast, which includes Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas, can rescue – though not for want of trying.

About that title. It seems that a Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) wants to extend the sport of fly-fishing to the Arabian Peninsula. He wants to fill western Yemen's bone-dry Wadi Aleyn desert with water and 10,000 North Atlantic salmon. As boneheaded as this sounds, the British prime minister's flinty spokeswoman, Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas), thinks it could be a welcome diversion from Middle East bad news – plus she dis-covers that 2 million British voters love to fish.

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What they don't love, she soon discovers, is their salmon population being airlifted to Yemen.

The sheikh's folly eventually becomes a kind of reality thanks to Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt), the sheikh's English businesswoman representative, and the highly reluctant Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor), a fisheries expert who thinks the whole enterprise is daft.

If Hallström had brought out the nuttiness in this situation, as Torday reputedly did in his book, "Salmon Fishing" might have had a lot to say about Anglo-Middle East relations, power politics, love, and fish. But once Alfred meets with the sheikh and they start conversing about faith versus science, you know you're in for a life lesson, not a ripping satire. And what is the lesson? To trust in your dreams – even if they involve stocking the desert with salmon.

Of course, it helps if you have the sheikh's billions to fund those dreams. The film is careful to make it seem as if he is a wide-eyed visionary rather than, say, a billionaire who is converting the desert into his own private theme park. A soldier boyfriend of Harriet's (Tom Mison) says as much to her, predicting a "five-star hotel and golf course."

A cadre of pesky home-grown terrorists keep trying to sabotage the project, for reasons that aren't altogether clear. Perhaps it's because the sheikh didn't first ask them pretty please if it was OK.

That soldier boyfriend, who goes MIA, is only one of the film's many red herrings (if I may be allowed to introduce a new fish into the mix). Another is Alfred's wife (Rachael Stirling), who, conveniently, is a cold fish, thereby allowing Alfred's budding attraction for Harriet to flourish guilt-free.

McGregor and Blunt work well together, which only compounds the disappointment. If only they were working this hard in a good cause! They should be paired again, preferably in a movie where they don't have to talk about migratory salmonids.

At first I thought that McGregor, who is playing a nebbishy repressed type, was miscast. But he's rather touching, and he turns his Scottish accent into a mellifluous instrument. Scott Thomas is playing much more of a caricature than her costars, but she at least seems to understand what the filmmakers, at all other times, don't – namely, that this material is best played for high satire, not damp whimsy. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, and brief language.)

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