Lasse Halstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a wonderfully good spirited movie about wonderfully good spirited people coming together over something as simple as the sport of salmon fishing. The picture is so upbeat; the actors have certain pep to their step and eagerness in their line readings. Its humor isn’t the least bit offensive, which is surprising considering how hard it is to make a comedy these days without resorting to vulgar, offensive jokes.
There’s so much quirky and easygoing energy pulsing through each scene, that there’s hardly a downer moment in it. With Terry Stacy’s squeaky-clean cinematography and Michael Carlin’s sleek, superficial production design, “Salmon Fishing” is pure romantic comedy fantasy. And it’s the first movie of 2012 that left me walking out of the theater smiling.
The Sheik of Yemen (Amr Waked) wants to bring the sport of salmon fishing to the country thinking it will unite the people. Except there’s one main problem, the country is mostly made up of desert, which means they have to import salmon and a water system from England. This in turn leads us to meet Fred (Ewan McGregor) a fisheries scientist for the British Government who doesn’t think it can be done.
However, he’s won over by the Sheik’s legal secretary Harriet (Emily Blunt) and now the three of them have to work together to bring the project to fruition. Meanwhile, the press secretary for the Prime Minister, Patricia Maxwell (a deliciously feisty Kristin Scott Thomas), takes an interest in the project to drum up a positive story for the country.
Now I know “Salmon Fishing” sounds like one of those sentimental, faith driven “if we can work together we can achieve anything” kind of movies. The press notes describe it as an “inspirational comedy” and I guess it is. Not everyone in Yemen agrees with what the Sheik wants and Fred and Harriet have to work through and solve problems but the film isn’t in your face about it. The screenplay by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beafoy (based on the novel by Paul Torday) keeps a breezy pace for the duration of the movie without veering off course and getting bogged down by lengthy inspirational or preachy speeches. The movie is about faith but it’s not trying to sell anything in particular.
Furthermore, the film sounds far more political than it actually is. The salmon fishing project is a large-scale operation that requires cooperation from both the British and Yemen governments and the people, so naturally there’s uneasiness. There’s mention of the war in Afghanistan, but it’s not the main focus of the movie. Halstrom isn’t out to make Yemen, or Britain, look bad. Nor does it have a pro environmental or pro modernization message. In fact at times it feels almost satiric, like when Fred stops an assassin from killing the Sheik by casting his fishing line in the man’s face.
The picture’s main emphasis is to establish its characters and tell its story, not to get caught up in politics or false sentimentality.
“Salmon Fishing” primarily revolves around the relationship between Harriet and Fred. Fred is incredibly nerdy: He loves his job; he speaks very precisely, and always brings small, pathetic looking sandwiches to work for lunch. Harriet is charming and beautiful but she also has a bit of spunk. Blunt and McGregor play off one another so well that there’s never a dull moment between them. McGregor is a natural at playing a geek and at this point I feel like there’s no male actor that Blunt hasn’t had good chemistry with.
They’re given witty, biting dialog to say to each other as opposed to cliché rom com one liners and we’re kept in suspense about their relationship instead of getting one steamy makeout session after another. They’re one of the best romantic comedy duo’s I’ve seen in a while.
In the end, the only major weakness “Salmon Fishing” has is that it’s perhaps too nice for its own good. This isn’t an issue for the first three quarters or so but it makes the conclusion not as exciting and satisfying as it could be. There’s a final twist at the end that I won’t go into detail about, but let’s just say it involves a love triangle between Fred, Harriet and another man and all three of them are far too polite.
Even so, that’s hardly enough to ruin the movie as a whole. Here’s a movie that seems like it should be steeped in politics and gooey sentimentality but it remains simple and cohesive, smart yet wacky and just an all around wholesome movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.