Go ahead, swallow the bait
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 9, 2012
Somehow managing to be both twee and edgy, the absurdist but gently winning romantic comedy "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" works a strange kind of wonder.
From the get-go, its premise seems fatally overdetermined: A British fisheries expert named Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) finds himself dragooned into the scheme of a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) to introduce fly-fishing in Yemen. Along the way, he befriends the sheik's quietly sophisticated London representative, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who herself is involved with a soldier recently called to Afghanistan (Tom Mison).
On paper, in other words, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is ridiculously plotty and forced. But as conceived for the screen by writer Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours," "Slumdog Millionaire") and director Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Chocolat"), this adaptation of Paul Torday's novel turns out to be a surprisingly lush, endearing little film, in which a swelling sense of romanticism thoroughly banishes even the most far-fetched improbabilities.
Traveling between the bureaucratic hives and sleek office towers of London, a spectacular castle in Scotland and the dramatic expanse of Yemen's Highland region (played in the film by Morocco), "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" asks viewers simply to sit back and enjoy the pleasant picaresque; the journey is eased considerably by Hallstrom's assured hand and feather-light touch.
As she did last year in "The Adjustment Bureau" with Matt Damon, Blunt finds an easygoing rhythm with her leading man here, with Harriet's catlike self-possession thoroughly unnerving the more introverted, ill-at-ease Alfred. (For his part, after playing Americans in his recent movies, McGregor reverts to his native Scottish burr with the ease of a man falling off a particularly mossy log.)
While Alfred and Harriet embark on a tenuous professional partnership, the filmmakers go to unnecessarily cruel lengths to make Alfred's wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling), a shrewish, ambitious harridan. The broad strokes work far better when it comes to Patricia Maxwell, a government press secretary who pressures Alfred to work with the sheik in order to wring some positive spin from the British presence in the Middle East, where gloomy body counts from Iraq and Afghanistan rule the news cycle. Played with lacerating, profane hilarity by Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia lends "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" precisely the bite it needs to keep from going all gooey, barking and barging her way into the whimsical atmosphere like a refugee from "In the Loop."
It's the serendipity of creative juxtaposition that Hallstrom is clearly after in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," from Scott Thomas spiking the honey with dollops of venom to the fabulous kilts and kaffiyehs worn by the sheik's bodyguards at his rustic Scottish redoubt. (The tonal exercise is less successful when the violence endemic to the titular region comes into play.)
"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is less a classic fish-out-of-water tale than a fish-in-strange-waters tale, a study in diametric opposites that finds unexpected synchronies and moments of almost mystical harmony. Viewers who take the sheik's advice and suspend their disbelief, even for a moment, may well find themselves hooked.
Contains some violence and sexual content and brief profanity.