Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Premise: An ichthyologist (Ewan McGregor) is recruited by a consultant (Emily Blunt) to bring salmon fishing to The Republic of Yemen on behalf of an idealistic sheikh (Amr Waked).
What Works: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is an enjoyable film that manages to be both smart and sweet and it is successfully romantic in multiple senses of the word. The picture is primarily structured as a standard love story, with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt as unlikely lovers who will in the course of the film fall for each other. This is a standard romantic structure but the filmmakers do it well by parceling out the development of their relationship. At the opening of the film both McGregor and Blunt’s characters are involved with other people and something this film does is make both of these characters suffer before they can enter into the relationship that the film is driving toward. This is smart storytelling, in part because their struggles put the audience on the side of the characters, but also because the filmmakers recognize the underlying truth that love requires effort and is sometimes painful, and that recognition gives the film more integrity than the typical Hollywood love story. The relationship between McGregor and Blunt’s characters develops nicely; early on the two have an antagonistic relationship reminiscent of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and the film makes them work together on the fishing project which allows the story to dramatize the development of their relationship in concrete ways. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt are both reliable actors and they make a nice pair on screen. Aside from looking physically compatible, which is important in a cinematic love story, they also have complementary acting styles. Neither is prone to melodrama and they accomplish a lot with subtle choices. Aside from the two leads the film also has impressive supporting performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as an unscrupulous British press secretary and Amr Waked an idealistic Yemini sheikh, and it is through these roles that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen expands its scope beyond just a love story. The sheikh relates to salmon fishing in spiritual terms and the project of bringing the sport to the Yemen is an attempt to bridge Western and Middle Eastern cultures. In that respect, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is about the tension between faith and reason but also how romantic idealism is inadequate to address the complexities of life and yet is entirely necessary in order to achieve ambitious ends. The interplay of Scott’s character shows how that idealism is sometimes coopted or exploited by political interests. The salmon fishing project also draws the ire of an anti-Western terrorist group and that adds another dimension to this film, as it links the cultural bridge-building with fears of modernity. This web of interconnected goals and tensions makes Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, among other things, an interesting piece of post-9/11 filmmaking.
What Doesn’t: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a good picture but it does strain its credibility in some minor ways. The sheikh, played by Amr Waked, is a little too idealistic, to the point of being unbelievable. Characters that have spiritual qualities are often written in such a way that they are constantly sublime and that runs the risk of undermining the drama. Actor Amr Waked is a very good actor and so he is able to sell the material but his lack of anger or frustration in the lowest points of the drama is incredible. The picture is also a bit clumsy with the love stories of Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt’s characters in the beginning of the film. It is hard to believe that McGregor is with the woman played by Rachael Stirling because their relationship is so clearly miserable. Also, Blunt’s character is in a very fresh relationship and the degree to which she is affected by her loss is startling. Fortunately, most of this is front ended on the picture and the film moves past it pretty easily.
DVD extras: Featurettes.
Bottom Line: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a sweet and hopeful movie that makes for enjoyable viewing. Although it has an outlandish premise, the movie is smart and funny and successfully appeals to the viewer’s idealism.
Episode: #405 (September 16, 2012)