Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

There’s a scene near the beginning of Lasse Hallström‘s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (a director famed for the likes of many fine movies –  My Life As A Dog and many more) where Ewan McGregor‘s somewhat anally retentive Dr Alfred Jones is having sex with his wife, where she is dutifully going through the motions in the name of marital love.  “That should do you for a while,” she says when he has finished – and therein lies the key: there is no true life passion or belief in his life.

The idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen is a metaphor for thinking the unthinkable – and achieving it, things that are theoretically possible – like travelling to Mars, as the script thoughtfully reminds us.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, adapted from Paul Torday‘s best-seller, is, as the name suggests, just such a movie about just such a dream. It’s catchphrase is “have faith” in the object of your desires, regardless of your religious mores – in other words, to apply spirituality to your value set.  In practice it is very unlikely this would work, but in the novel and movie it does, symbolically.

It’s not too much a leap of judgement to apply this metaphor to interpersonal relationships, hence the fact that SFINY turns out to be a romcom rather than the deeper, more philosophical picture it might otherwise have turned out to be.

Here, Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) has the foolhardy and absurdly expensive vision of transporting salmon to the desert in order to pursue his metaphorical dream and catch a few fish by outwitting his scaly opponents.  In order so to do, he enlists the help of stunningly beautiful investment consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (bit of a mouthful but played by the stunningly beautiful Emily Blunt) and thence salmon and fly expert Dr Jones (inventor of the “Woolly Jones” fly, no less), who commence their relationship on frostily polite terms but in spite of her boyfriend apparently returning from the dead without a scratch in Afghanistan, they inevitably fall in love and stay together in the Yemen to pursue the mission of winning over the local community to the ways of salmon fishing.

Lucky for them, Patricia Maxwell,  acerbic and cynical press officer to the PM, decides that a good news story from the Middle East is required, so pulls rank over Jones’s arsehole of a boss (Conleth Hill reminding me of every boss I’ve ever known.)  Maxwell is played with sublime arrogance by the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas, always a fine actress who succeeds in stealing every scene she is in with the help of a seemingly bottomless collection of put-downs and one-liners, all delivered with the panache and timing worthy of Eric Morecambe.  No disrespect to the rest of the cast, but Scott Thomas is a female Malcolm Tucker if ever I saw one – they can barely hope to compete.

In fact, after listing all the insurmountable difficulties preventing salmon fishing coming to the Yemen and preventing Dr Jones and Ms Chetwode-Talbot getting it together with a passion that belies their earlier delicately balanced partnership, both seem inevitably to happen with undue haste in order to cram the whole enterprise into a 103 minute time slot.  Indeed, they seem barely to have dropped the formalities of addressing one another by titles and surnames than they are declaring love, albeit through a third party.

That is the weakest point of the movie, truth be told – that and the somewhat perfunctory subplot about local Arabic opposition to the scheme – but luckily there are plenty of plus points to counterbalance that structural blemish.

Chief among them is Simon Beaufoy‘s fizzingly funny script, brought to life by a splendid cast of well-drawn comic characters.   Even so, the ensemble works magnificently well.  Why have “stars” who can’t act for toffee when you can have actors who can really act, like Scott Thomas, Hill, McGregor, Blunt, Waked and all others assembled here?

The movie also looks ravishingly beautiful, with each shot designed for elegance and with style.  A slight and gentle tale maybe, but it makes all things count and retains its freshness, charm and vitality throughout, for which great credit is due to Halleström.

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