How long can any film review go before calling Salmon Fishing in Yemen a fish out of water story? Not to mention that the film stars Emily Blunt and her prominent lips. Every time Ewan McGregor’s Scottish fish expert looks at mackerel, he must think of her.
The man who took over Obi-Wan Kenobi becomes a new Dr. Jones, taking on an impossible mission of faith in Arabia. At one point, he even mentions the Ark of the Covenant. And yet he ends the movie as a sort of Lawrence of Arabia, obsessed, liberated and embittered by a folly in the desert. Or he should have, if the film rescues him.
Salmon Fishing in Yemen is cleverly written, well-performed, with a unique and memorable story. One might even dare call it critic’s bait. However, for some reason it attaches a series of subplots that nearly wash it away. While the film they get out of the material is watchable, you can’t help but feel there was a better film snapping at the bottom of the line.
There’s a strong brew between the fish guy with a personality shortage, who is asked by a consultant (Blunt) to bring salmon to a valley in the Arabian desert for a visionary sheik (Amr Waked), who loves fly fishing. The script from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire)–populated with thoughtful one-liners like “That’s the good thing about Aspberger’s. It’s virtually impossible to hurt our feelings”–plays strongly to director Lasse Hallström’s attraction to quirk and romance.
A lot of the really great screen romances aren’t set up with romance in mind. Their lovers work together on something fulfilling to them, moving toward a common goal, falling in love along the way. Salmon Fishing should be the story of two people who slowly fall in love as they jet around the world to find rare fins and flippers. It works best in the first half of the film when it is that film (new romantic formula: Less mush. More fish.)
So why does the film feel the need to fish in conventional streams of generic drama–his unhappy wife, her missing soldier boyfriend, a jihadist subplot–to force the wrong type of conflict? It’s adapted from a book, but that’s not an excuse. Part of this speaks to money, I think, and the fact that you don’t really know how a movie is going to go before you begin filming it. You don’t know what the chemistry will be, or if there will be any at all. The subplots become a sort of insurance policy.
Which is a shame, because it takes away from a film that might have been great, but ends up only with a lot of things to offer, foremost among them the chemistry of the lead trio of Amr Waked, McGregor, and Blunt. When she first emerged six or seven years ago, I always thought Blunt had it in her to be a great actress. But I didn’t suspect she would have such delicacy and generosity as a love interest in romantic roles. Taken with last year’s The Adjustment Bureau–where she managed to lift a similarly besotted screenplay–this film certifies her as a chemistry machine, and a saving grace to mainstream-ish films that want to be different but only half-accomplish it.
[ed]: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has a great line: “We need a good story about the Middle East that doesn’t have explosions.” Changing opinions about the Middle East, one funny one-liner at a time.