Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Time and tide wait for no man…or woman

Emily Blunt and Amr WakedSheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) tells us, about two-thirds of the way through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, “I wanted them to understand that this wasn’t about fishing.”  In writing, this is what I might call a “thematic passage” – the character is speaking in context, but also telling the audience how to read the story.  Indeed, Lasse Hallström’s film, based upon a new-ish novel by Paul Torday, is anything but a movie about fishing.  It is primarily about patience, but also about love and different kinds of faith (the most interesting kinds being non-religious).

The story begins with financial adviser Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) typing an email to widely respected fisheries expert Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), seeking advice for a project that will involve bringing (you guessed it) salmon fishing to the Yemen.  These scenes feature a charming technique: the typed words pop into the air alongside the face of the character typing them, allowing for intimate closeups of the character in place of a still shot of their email inbox.  Fred considers the project ridiculous and impossible (his exact words in the email are “fundamentally unfeasible”), even after being bullied and blackmailed by his boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill, whose fans are probably not used to seeing him with a full head of hair) into supporting it.  This leads to an immediate conflict between Harriet and Fred, and the wordplay between them (Fred being overly formal and unfeeling to the point that Harriet accuses him of having Asperger’s, and Harriet keeping the tone light while simultaneously housing a superior knowledge of the Yemen region that she only wields when Fred thinks he has the upper hand) is adeptly written and delightful to watch.  Meanwhile, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s hot-tempered and impulsive press secretary, comes upon the salmon fishing project while trying to find a puff piece that will keep Anglo-Arab relations supposedly friendly in the eye of the public, even after a recent mosque bombing in Afghanistan.  However convenient this might be to the story, it ties together in more than one way: Harriet’s new boyfriend, Robert (Tom Mison), is posted to Afghanistan on military assignment, and after the Meet Cute we recently witnessed between Harriet and Fred, we must suspect that Robert will not be coming back.  Additionally, Fred’s apparent issues with his wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling) are showcased, which also bodes well for a potential relationship between the two main parties.

The problems between the two couples, however, are handled better than they would be in a garden-variety romcom.  Take, for instance, the fact that neither Robert nor Mary fit the Spiteful Sleaze archetype.  Both are good, sympathetic people who deserve to be happy; they just can’t seem to work things out with their partners.

Fred, as he must, comes around to the potential of the project after visiting the sheikh’s estate, fishing with him, and learning that the well-water in the area is cold enough to support salmon.  The trick now is obtaining salmon that will “run” (swim upstream), but since the British media has run a smear campaign on everyone involved due to the inevitable failure of another of Bernard’s blackmail attempts, the only option is to use farm-raised salmon who have never run in their lives, and have faith in the fact that swimming upstream is their natural instinct.  Despite the sheikh’s earlier polemic concerning Fred’s lack of faith, the former is risking his reputation and life (including enduring assassination attempts) in order to see this project realized, and does not approve.

What follows is a story about trust.  The characters must trust each other to survive, to attain love (not just any love, but the kind they all feel they deserve), and to see their hard work pay off.  The audience must trust the filmmakers (and original author) to convince us of the unlikely, the impossible, and even the absurd.  McGregor and Blunt play their characters with complete commitment and seriousness, which has led to a Golden Globe nomination for each of them this year.  Thomas’s Patricia is hilarious, well-used, and has a few greatly inspired scenes featuring Instant-Message sessions with the Prime Minister, who only ever appears as a still image and delivers some delicious political humor; as well as a scene with her family, which not only fully deepens her character’s personality as an alpha female and overzealous worker, but is such a gem of comedy that a viewer like me wishes for some deleted scenes (in the scene, Patricia tells her son, who refuses to put his cool-looking hood down and act like an adult, “Don’t you suck your teeth at me, young man.  I’m not one of your bitches from the Baltimorlow Rises, you feel me?  I’m your fucking mother”).    Waked, an Egyptian actor known mostly for playing villains, creates a handsome, excitable, and absorbing shiekh, snatching a victory from what could have been a stereotype.  His inherent mysticism, which would be grating in real life (he occasionally says things like “You will know when the time comes”) is key to understanding the film’s depth: suspend your disbelief, he seems to say, and the ensuing magic will not seem so ridiculous.

The film, in the public eye, seems to follow that old Shakespearean-age rule that any story with a happy ending is considered a “comedy,” regardless of content.  Despite my protests about this film being pure comedy, I’ll concede if the Globe nominations accrue more viewers for one of 2012’s most genuinely heartfelt, and, I must say, “nice,” films.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012); screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; based upon the novel by Paul Torday; directed by Lasse Hallström; starring Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked, and Kristen Scott Thomas.

 

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