As long as you don’t have plans to seriously pursue becoming a fisherman in the desert, Ewan McGregor will charm you in his attempt at this impossible task. Though his latest film, the aptly titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is blithely unconcerned with the gritty details of this aquatic pursuit, the movie portrays an entertaining and inspiring tale of unlikely individuals working together toward an even unlikelier end.
The movie’s most standout quality is its excellent acting. Emily Blunt impeccably plays young British professional Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who directs a wealthy sheik’s pet project to introduce salmon fishing to his country. Dr. Fred Jones, played by McGregor, is the fishery consultant who advises her. McGregor and Blunt lead a skilled and moving cast, creating a film that is at least as charming as it is absurd.
Witty, understated dialogue and smooth directing add much to Salmon Fishing. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy adapted the original novel for film, showing the same skill with which he adapted the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Director Lasse Halstrom, who directed such films as Chocolat and Dear John, is no stranger to romantic movies, and his execution of the subtle and improbable development of the Harriet/Fred romance between Blunt and McGregor’s characters is tender and compelling.
To complement its blatantly romantic moments, the film’s story also incorporates themes of politics, religion, war, and terrorism. McGregor’s awkward mannerisms and the remarkably cavalier role played by the British government have a delightfully comedic effect, particularly in several ridiculously worded and comically golden instant-messaging conversations between the prime minister and his press officer, who has taken an interest in the titular salmon fishing project.
Throughout the various directions taken by the movie, the dynamic between Blunt and McGregor keeps the film cohesive. Harriet is a straightforward character: successful, beautiful, and enamored with a new soldier boyfriend recently deployed in the Middle East. Fred, however, is more unusual; he has an overly polite, boyish, and at times painfully awkward kind of charm that keeps his character afloat despite an initial lack of appeal. He transitions from someone so socially inept that Harriet mistakenly believes he has Asperger’s syndrome to a man with a real chance of winning her affections. The film also distinguishes their relationship with a characteristically British stiff upper lip—Halstrom directs their emotions fully and beautifully, as they are expressed without any of the excessive drama or overtly physical demonstrations we have come to expect from a romance film.
But aside from the romance and politics, the plot surrounding the actual salmon fishing in the Yemen is nonsensical. If while viewing the film you find yourself questioning the sanity of people who would transport ten thousand salmon to Yemen without so much as a single trial run, you’re too logical and critical for this film. In addition to the technical impossibilities, heavy-handed fish metaphors dropped throughout the movie prove bothersome at best. Halstrom could not have more obviously communicated that McGregor represents a salmon finally swimming upstream if he actually forced the actor to swim up a river in the film. Oh, wait… he did that.
The minor flaws of the movie, however, do not reduce its lasting charm. The humor and subtle relationships keep Salmon Fishing in the Yemen riveting even when it’s ventured into the realm of the unbelievable. Despite the impression you might have gotten from Map of the Modern World, Yemen proves the perfect backdrop for a quirky romance, with a little aquaculture on the side.