Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

(Lasse Hallström, 2011)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Not averse to strapping syrupy bows around tales of incidental contrivance and topicality, director Lasse Hallström turns his sunny directorial disposition to yet another literary adaptation in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, taking Paul Torday’s novel but extracting the political satire and blackly comic weight. Pairing Emily Blunt with a sober Ewan McGregor may be the sole diamond in this structurally scattershot rough, but at least Hallström has the confidence to continue down a career path that will no doubt lead to him becoming the leading voice in gregarious, depthless and openly vacuous romantic comedy cinema, if he has not already done so.

Creating something of a measured groove with Chocolat (2000) and The Shipping News (2001) – films that paired hazard-free storytelling with handsome cinematography – before flirting with the Nicholas Sparks brand of unabashed whimsy in Dear John (2010), Hallström here runs with similar ingredients, mixing Simon Beaufoy’s detached screenplay with a tame and affectless treatment of the story. McGregor plays stuffy fisheries expert Fred Jones, whose contentment with a staid life (and similarly uneventful marriage) clashes with Blunt’s workaholic consultant Harriet when her wealthy client, the amiable Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked), instructs her with the seemingly impossible task of introducing salmon into the arid waterways of Yemen so he can fish there. Despite an initial reluctance, Jones soon finds himself warming to both the project and Harriet, his expertise admired by the boundlessly optimistic Sheikh who dispels any scepticism the two may have. Similarly optimistic is the British Government, chiefly the Prime Minister’s spiky press secretary Patricia Maxwell (a terrific Kristin Scott Thomas), who attempts to hijack the mission and use it to construct a positive spin on Afghanistan and divert the attention of voters away from the current political unrest.

While not exactly a source material particularly suited to Hallström’s jobbing, wishy-washy sensibilities, Beaufoy’s condensed manipulation of Torday’s novel ensures that the director’s affinity for idyllic vistas and handsomely empty protagonists remains steadily intact. Although Blunt and McGregor display ample chemistry, their blossoming romance that, should, gently be underscoring the central narrative concerns with Anglo-Arab relations is instead foregrounded so far that any ‘will they-wont they’ speculation is nullified and drowned out by a sea of indifference. Their sexless, soapy relationship – which, admittedly, retains a somewhat old school charm – is given futile attempts at stumbling blocks, which come in the extraneous form of Harriet’s boyfriend going missing in action while on tour in Afghanistan. This, as well as a brewing threat from Yemeni activists, would have been emotionally brave narrative crises if it weren’t for the film’s ebulliently twee nature, a meek refusal to comprehend – nor flesh out – the cultural ramifications of the Sheikh’s pet project. They are spun into positive comedic pixels in a glossy surface texture, as is Scott Thomas’s raucous PR bully, whose memorability swims against an inoffensive but ultimately mediocre tide that does precious little with a flood of potential.

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