SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy from Paul Torday's novel
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Mison
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 3/7/12
Opens: March 9, 2012
Writing political satire in America today must be an almost effortless job: the Republican candidates are making it easy. "My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs," or "I'm not concerned about the poor," or "Contraception isn't what's supposed to be." The British may have the same situation, one not as recognizable to us on the other side of the Atlantic. Paul Torday in his satirical novel "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," takes aim at the British government which has had to put a spin on such unpopular campaigns as its contribution to the Iraq War. The government's taking all the credit for the work of others is always a popular theme of writers, and Torday hones in as well on marriage, public relations people, TV interviews, consumerism, and the idea of Westerners that everyone in the world wants to be like us. In adapting this cutting novel to the screen, Simon Beaufoy has sweetened the parody to the potential disappointment of those among us who take great joy in laughing at government, and Swedish film director Lasse Hallström has helped to convert politics into romantic comedy, to the pleasure of those who like that kind of thing.
Though it's a shame that the film that bears the name of the book is almost toothless, much credit must be given to the cast and crew for tracking the growing affection between a woman who is the representative of a fabulously wealthy Yemeni sheikh and the somewhat dull man who, in mid-life crisis, is about to chuck his uneventful job in a British government fisheries department to find passion and commitment in an exotic land.
In this production of CBS films, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), burdened by a loveless marriage to career-obsessed Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), is approached by Harriet Chetwode-Talbor (Emily Burden), a representative of a sheikh (Amr Waked) with a proposal that seems hare-brained. The sheikh is will to pay $50 million pounds to get 10,000 fish from the Scottish Highland transported to Yemen. His aim-one that is punctuated in the book but glossed over in the film-is to get Yemenis to forget their tribal hostilities and to have all classes of people united in the sport of fishing. The problem is that the Scottish Highlands have oodles of rain and lots of fish-friendly water while Yemen is arid. The British prime minister looks at the scheme as a way to deflect criticism of his government for participating in the Iraq War (not specifically mentioned in the movie) and to further Anglo-Arab relations while at the same time playing up to the millions of his countrymen who fish. To that end he directs Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), his chief flack, to pursue the dream and to be sure to get the photo-ops he needs in that pursuit.
The romance between Dr. Jones and Harriet seems impossible at first. He is marginally Asperger's with no sense of humor and is not as young or as good-looking as Harriet's soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison). However the affection builds slowly and credibly, enhanced no doubt by their joint experience in a strange land. Harriet's and Alfred's penchant for calling each other by their last names is particularly humorous given the way that he regularly refers to "Ms Chetwode-Talbot," while director Hallström only gradually allows them to go on a first-name basis-a sure sign of growing intimacy in what seems to be a Britain as stodgy as it was in the fifties. There is more depth to this movie than the romance. Philosophically the story pits science against religion; faith against facts. The sheikh understands that Dr. Jones is a non-believer, a man of science, and is eager to convert the fellow into one who understands the role of faith. As the movie concludes we realize the extent to which the sheikh has succeeded.
Terry Stacey films the proceedings in London, the Scottish Highlands towns of Argyll and Bute, and Morocco (Yemen is out-of-bounds for this sort of venture: and who ever called that country The Yemen? Even The Ukraine gave up the article adjective.) The true beauty of southern Morocco is not brought out but "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is a lovely, light, expansive rom-com peopled with attractive performers, particularly Amr Waked who is said to be a hot item in Egypt.
Unrated. 107 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online