by Joan Ellis
Welcome to a grand surprise. Without much advance buzz, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen snuck into town to enliven the dustbowl that follows the annual Academy Awards. This is a film that only the British could have made. It is at once self-mocking and celebratory, contemporary and old-fashioned. Put these contradictions in the hands of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (novel by Paul Torday) and director Lasse Hallstrom and you have a movie that is awash in charm. And here’s a warm salute to Fiona Weir who cast the actors and got it right with every single one.
Premise: Patricia Scott Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), Press Secretary to the Prime Minister, is determined to find an upbeat story in the chaos of the Middle East. Harriet (Emily Blunt) has found just such a thing: the determination of Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) of Yemen to bring the peaceful sport of salmon fishing to the desert as a by-product of his plan to irrigate the area for agriculture. Orders come directly from #10 Downing Street to proceed. Against his will, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), fisheries expert, is directed from on high to accomplish the mission.
The dialogue between Harriet and Alfred sprays from the screen in scattershot one-liners. Listen carefully because the punch lines often disappear in the laughter of the audience. The cynical Dr. Jones describes the impossibility of Harriet’s plan; she in turn erases every obstacle and demands success. The Sheikh will let nothing stop him from giving the world the first Arabian salmon. While the young pair implements the plan, their antagonisms are evaporating; they are falling in love, the old fashioned way. The skepticism melts, the banter sweetens. As the story warms, the sharp edges melt. We are asked to think about the complications: he is married; she is in love with a soldier in Afghanistan. We worry.
This is a grand conspiracy of writers and actors determined to create a gentle comedy about an impossible dream. Kristin Scott Thomas elicits the loudest guffaws when she punctuates her rigid orders with outrageous asides. Take delight in her IM exchange with the PM. Emily Blunt travels beautifully from crisp intelligence to reluctant lover to wounded bird. The irresistible Ewan McGregor alternates between sweet vulnerability and passionate enthusiasm. Amr Wakid infuses the Sheikh with a warm humanity that proves contagious to his new friends. These sophisticated actors wrap a terrific script in British understatement and succeed mightily in delivering laughter and pleasure. Each of them knows exactly what role his character plays in carrying the tune.
When Harriet wonders aloud if they are all “part of a lavish practical joke,” we smile in agreement, glad they have made us part of the fun. The lovable Sheikh, who has morphed from a shrouded, serious presence to a perceptive, intelligent hunk, sums it all up for us: “It’s all about faith and fish.” It is indeed, and you’ll most likely love it.