“In that case I can fish”
Much like how an absurd notion of satisfying a wealthy Sheikh’s whim to bring British salmon into the Yemen could actually occur—so Anglo-Middle East relations can attain a meaningless victory against a highly destructive war—the film adaptation of Paul Torday‘s novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a feel good tale able to put a smile on your face. The entertainment industry has flooded us with Arab villainy the past decade, so watching two posh Englanders uproot their lives to help facilitate the impossible is a comforting sight. Both Fred (Ewan McGregor) and Harriet (Emily Blunt) embrace the generosity of Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) and believe his quest is based on more than simply a rich man’s boredom. More than fishing or a burgeoning love sparked by tragedy, the film portrays faith and the will to bring East and West together in an endeavor worthy of national headlines to express how peace is attainable through perseverance and humanity.
A comedic drama fitting nicely into the oeuvres of both director Lasse Hallström and writer Simon Beaufoy, the first act proves quite entertaining. Sheikh Muhammed enlists the English firm controlling his finances to contact those with the expertise to make his vision a reality—all of which can only laugh. McGregor’s Dr. Alfred Jones does his best to let the firm know the Middle East is too warm, too dry, and possesses no actual sporting interest for anyone to care about the project. But while his snidely quipped snark garners a ton of laughs, his counterpart in Harriet refuses to let her client down and deftly researches on her own to make the scientist slightly alter his tune towards the realm of theoretical plausibility. It’s only when his boss Bernard Sugden (Conleth Hill) uses government pressure and a reciprocal dislike in one another to give an ultimatum of unemployment or traveling halfway around the world that Fred finally agrees to take a serious look at the enterprise.
A platonic friendship bonded due to Harriet’s emotional gushing and Fred’s robotic lack of social convention when faced with such makes the interactions between McGregor and Blunt refreshingly authentic. We ignore the obvious romantic implications his rocky marriage to wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) and her boyfriend Robert’s (Tom Mison) deployment to Afghanistan bring up because a lot of their ease with one another on the project comes from Muhammed’s ability to make them feel at home in the desert. An engaging mind with the charisma and empathy to turn all those he touches into a friend, Waked’s performance as the Sheikh really proves crucial to luring his partners into the Middle East despite ambivalence and a dissolution of hope doing their best to keep the Brits comfy in the English cold. When the three are together with genuine joy at the tanks and rivers being built with water from the newly constructed dam, anything appears possible.
Sadly, however, a film as calmly composed as that simply wouldn’t fly. Hamfisted plotlines concerning a soldier missing in action, a militant terrorist group disapproving of the nonviolent Western invasion, and an over-zealous press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) spinning truths to her every whim for public relations glory must be infused to cater to our need for conflict in lieu of a spiritual sojourn to an exotic land hoping for a sliver of peace in a world with short supply. A love triangle is forced upon a sweet couple living beyond the constraints of their cookie-cutter lives while their first world home proves to be an attention whore willing to ruin all sense of community and alliance for a headline that will never be important enough to make people forget the dying men and women fighting for their freedom. What was at first an intriguing look into a cynical man’s awakening through the power of miracles becomes a run-of-the-mill romance that almost forgets its initial goal.
Perhaps I’m being too hyperbolic with its shortcomings, however, since I did enjoy myself a lot. There is a sweetness in each frame that shows love as a messy, constantly evolving beast rather than the romantic ideal of soulmates most wish to believe. Mixed within its odd couple pairing of contemporary chic and academic elitism is great humor spanning from the petty—McGregor versus Hill is always juvenile and fantastic—to the crass—Scott Thomas spewing profanities at her teenage son—to the heartwarmingly endearing—Waked throwing a well-placed British “bloody” in whenever he can. McGregor’s naivety and spoken aloud inner-monologues create the best moments if for nothing else than to show the actor against type with clumsy arrogance lost when emotions takeover rationality. He stumbles brilliantly forwarded into uncharted territory and makes us accept his metamorphosis every step of the way.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has the potential to speak to audiences spiritually while also keeping generic enough for the mainstream to bask in its romance. Supporting characters are often used as plot devices rather than autonomous people, but we do thankfully get three-dimensionality from our main three leads. Yes, Scott Thomas’ insensitivity may be a highlight, but I refuse to put her rather manipulative role above the more natural trifecta of Fred, Harriet, and Muhammed. Their kinship exists beyond the constraints of culture, education, or language and creates a union with the power to create. And while the bottomless bank account of a Sheikh may prove crucial to everything on display being possible, one shouldn’t discount the pride or imagination Torday instills inside his leads. They may have needed time and cajoling to get onboard, but the sky was the limit once they did.
 Amr Waked and Ewan McGregor star in CBS Films’ SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
 Ewan McGregor (as ‘Dr. Alfred Jones’) and Emily Blunt (as ‘Harriet Chetwode-Talbot’) star in CBS Films’ SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
 Ewan McGregor (as ‘Dr. Alfred Jones’) stars in CBS Films’ SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.