Film Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor make an appealing duo in this offbeat romantic comedy which unfortunately changes midstream into something darker and far less engaging.

That unwieldy title isn’t the only obstacle creating an upstream box-office struggle for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the latest film from veteran director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules). Even more problematic is a jarring shift in tone from offbeat romantic comedy to earnest, dramatic plot devices reflecting today’s turbulent world. That’s too bad, because the romantic-comedy portions of Salmon Fishing are something special, a disarming throwback to the classic repartee of the likes of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy adapted the novel by Paul Torday, which does earn points for its unusual backdrop and premise. Emily Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the British representative of wealthy sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked), who owns an estate in Scotland where he’s developed a passion for fishing and who dreams of introducing salmon to the waters of his native Yemen. Ewan McGregor plays Fred Jones, the government’s Scottish fisheries expert who can name at least a dozen reasons why the sheik’s scheme could never possibly work. But Jones is no match for the force of nature that is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s press secretary, who sees an opportunity for some positive press and cultural bridge-building in the sheik’s proposed fish foray.

And so the stuffy scientist and the stylish and confident Harriet are forced to spend time together brainstorming how to obtain and export 10,000 salmon from the U.K. and determining whether a salmon-friendly environment can be created in the arid Arabian Peninsula. For a comically lengthy amount of time, they remain on a last-name basis, their formality guarding against any hint of romance. After all, Fred has a frosty wife who’s just left for a six-week business trip, while Harriet’s handsome new soldier boyfriend has been summoned to Afghanistan. Still, there’s chemistry to spare between Blunt and McGregor, and it would have been a pleasure to bask in their slow-simmering attraction if the war, assassination attempts and other unpleasant realities hadn’t rudely entered the picture.

Using a plummy variation on his native Scottish accent, McGregor has more of a character role here than usual, and it’s most appealing. Fred is in the tradition of those socially awkward but irresistible academics most memorably played by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire, oblivious hunks who are putty in the hands of a strong, assertive woman like Blunt’s fetching Harriet. The two contemporary stars keep their characters’ sexual tension understated but ever-present as they’re forced to spend more and more time together on their madcap project. Adding to the comic bounty is Scott Thomas’ brazen, profane PR dynamo, a refreshing change of pace for an actress often consigned to elegant dramatic roles.

Waked’s charismatic, enlightened, visionary sheik would seem to be an anomaly in light of the current turmoil in today’s Yemen. Those dark undercurrents do play a key role in Salmon Fishing, but they belong to a different movie than the one that introduces the screwball pairing of Blunt and McGregor. (From all accounts, the original novel is much more savagely satirical than this film version.) And a plot turn involving Harriet’s military lover places the audience in the thankless position of rooting against a likeable war hero.

Ultimately, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen represents a missed opportunity, a promising replica of the golden era of screen comedy that becomes mired in increasingly unwelcome narrative muck. Call it the one that got away.