Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland a fabulously rich Yemeni Sheikh stands, rod in hand, waist deep in the waters of his own private loch. He is about to tell us about a dream he has had – a dream of a better world for us all, and of how it may come to pass. “I have a dream” he says, gazing portentously into the hills, “that one day, when talk turns to what the Israelis did to the Palestinians; what the British did to the Afghanis; when voices grow heated and war is in the air; someone will say, ‘Gentlemen, let us arise… and go fishing’”. Yes.

Now – you may say he’s a dreamer, our Yemeni Sheikh. But I’m here to tell you – he’s not the only one. I, for example, have a dream where I’m being attacked by a box of kittens. Perhaps not quite as visionary a strategy for world peace as the fishing thing I grant you, but in reality probably just about as sensible. But this isn’t reality, dummy! This is Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, an amiable romedy-comedy thingy based on the best selling novel of the same name and starring international superstar Ewan McGregor and a drop-dead classy cast of fellow A-listers. Huzzah!

McGregor is Dr. Alfred Jones, a fish scientist man stuck in a rut at the Department Of Fisheries And Agriculture by day and sadly drifting apart from his career-driven wife by night. Stuck in a rut, that is, until he’s contacted by silly-named saucepot Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), the aforementioned fishing obsessed Sheikh’s UK representative, who fills him in on her employer’s crr-Azy plan to set up salmon fishing facilities in the middle of the bloody Yemen! With Downing Street’s bossy PR officer (Kristen Scott Thomas) on the lookout for a ‘good news’ story from the Middle East, an incredulous Dr. Jones soon finds he has no choice but to back the scheme and warmly lit comedy romance ensues.

By no means a great film, SFITY (as it shall hence be known) suffers from confusion around what it’s actually meant to be. Quixotic fable? Political satire? Tender romance? In attempting to do all of the above it spreads itself pretty thin, the result being that while nothing is done badly, still nothing here really flies. Unable to lay hands on a narrow brush, Director Lasse Hallstrom gives us overhead shots of McGregor walking the wrong way against a stream of London commuters, effectively swimming upstream, just like salmon – OK you’re there already. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who enjoys an inspirational unlikely-protagonists-achieve-the-unachievable allegory (The Full Monty; Slumdog Millionaire; about seven more unlikely-protagonists-achieve-the-unachievable movies), is similarly heavy handed – “It’s an extraordinary idea” McGregor tells Blunt at one point, tentatively broaching the idea of a romance between them – “Yes” she replies, and then, “a bit like salmon fishing in the Yemen” she adds, practically winking at the camera. Not content with merely spoon-feeding us subtext, the filmmakers have chosen instead to load it into an industrial jet-wash and blast it straight down the front of our pants.

What the script lacks in subtlety, however, it kind of almost makes up for in laughs, and Hallstrom has some fun here and there with split-screen tricks and quirky angles. But ultimately what saves this from resembling a cozy bit of Sunday night telly is a terrific cast, who proper throw themselves into the thing like seasoned old pros. Blunt is way more warm and vulnerable than her job description would have required; Amr Waked as The Sheikh suitably foreign and charismatic; and professional sourpuss Scott Thomas pretty funny actually (who knew?). And then there’s Ewan McGregor.

It was during one of SFITY’s frequent but not exactly unpleasant lulls that the question came to me: Is Ewan McGregor the new Michael Caine? OK, maybe not. But what led me to this startling idea is a very Caine-like quality he seems to possess of managing to be a superb screen actor without anyone really noticing. In this he brings a modesty and lightness of touch that’s as hard to master as it’s easy to overlook. He’s also funny, still sandily gorgeous at 40, and lovelorn. Nobody does lovelorn like Ewan McGregor.

While being nowhere near a must-see, neither would this fall into the must-not-see category. A little bit dumb, but at least a little bit charming, as fish-based life affirmation movies go, you could probably do a lot worse. And at least you can take your Mum. Hell – you can take her Mum.

By Andrew Burt

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