Salmon Fishing in the Yemen may be a mouthful but don’t let the unwieldy title fool you. Based on the popular novel by Paul Torday, this is not an aquatic-based political documentary, but rather a feather light, British romantic comedy starring two extremely easy on the eyes movie stars (Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, both looking as lovely as expected). It’s mildly charming, wildly uncomplex, and if it had been made ten years ago it would’ve starred Colin Firth and Kate Winslet (before they both moved beyond these types of films). While it does earn points for its often smart dialogue, as well as the unusual premise, ultimately the recklessly shifting tone and safe-as-milk storyline may make completely falling for this film an upstream battle.
The novel was adapted by Slumdog Millionaire Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy and follows the story of Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) and Dr. Fred Jones (McGregor). Harriet is the British representative for a wealthy sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked), who owns an estate in Scotland where he’s spent so much time fishing and communing with nature that he’s developed a dream of introducing salmon to the waters of his native Yemen. Harriet contacts government fisheries expert Fred, who despite his misgivings, is forced to participate by the British Prime Minister’s press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), who sees an opportunity for some positive press and cultural bridge-building in the sheik’s proposal.
So our stuffy Dr. Jones (sorry, but there’s only one Dr. Jones allowed in movies and he goes by the name Indiana) and sassy, freewheeling Ms. Chetwode-Talbot are obligated to spend many late nights together brainstorming how to obtain the necessary amount of salmon from U.K. waters and determining whether a fish-friendly environment can be created in the arid Arabian Peninsula; all the while remaining on a last-name basis in some sort of subconscious attempt to keep their budding feelings for one another at bay.
You see, Fred has a wife who has pretty much checked out of the marriage and has just left on a six-week business trip, while Harriet’s handsome new soldier boyfriend has recently been deployed to Afghanistan. Still, the chemistry between the two is undeniable and basking in the slow-simmering heat of their growing attraction would have been pleasurable enough without the war, assassination and political scheming elements of the story attempting to steal the thunder.
Director Lasse Hallström’s (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Dear John) smart direction matches the general energy and zip of the script: the dialogue is often quite witty and the film displays a strong classy Brit sensibility. He pulls out the whole “swimming against the tide” metaphor a bit too often, but that’s a small quibble.
McGregor, sporting a plummier version of his natural Scot accent, does a lovely job making what could have been a one-note stereotype of a stodgy nerd into a fully-realized human being while the charming Blunt does an admirable job with her underdeveloped character. Kristin Scott Thomas’ role is painfully brief but she almost steals the movie with a role that could have easily stepped right out of the acerbically brilliant political comedy In the Loop.
As agreeable as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen very definitely is, the film ultimately represents a missed opportunity. The slow-burning, sweetly chaste romance, and sparkling dialogue is a reminder of the bygone golden era of big screen romantic comedy but the film’s numerous (and often extraneous) side stories invoke the very modern movie problem of trying to please every possible demographic. As it stands, the best elements of the film become mired in the unwelcome narrative muck, branding Salmon Fishing in the Yemen the one that got away.