The prime minister of the U.K. is in dire need of good news. In the midst of the Iraq War, his press office is scrambling for “Anglo-Arabian news that isn't about something exploding,” and for chief press officer Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), a puff piece about salmon fishing in the Yemen would fit the bill nicely. Never mind that fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) can't imagine pulling off the project in such an ill-suited climate, even with the endless resources of a fishing-fond sheik (Amr Waked) at his disposal.
The flustered bureaucrat does get to match wits with the lovely Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), though, while his workaholic wife takes off to Geneva. He gets to trade in the chilly, drab halls of London for the warm, open spaces of the Middle East. And if the endeavor does, in fact, succeed, he gets to take the credit. Not too bad for essentially being blackmailed into doing the bidding of an aloof prime minister and his insistent minions.
This being a Lasse Hallström joint, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a gentle, literal-minded fish-out-of-water tale, with Paul Torday's more satirical novel adapted by Slumdog Millionaire's Simon Beaufoy into something patently safe along the lines of middlebrow Miramax titles of the 1990s. (Although many helmed by Hallström himself – Chocolat, The Shipping News, etc. – technically bowed in the early-2000s, all are of a similarly inoffensive ilk.)
It's not just about implausible theory and impossible odds, but faith and hope, as the sheik handily spells out. Looking like a cross between Alexander Siddig and Antonio Banderas, Waked operates as equal parts Zen master and matchmaker, wanting to bring life to a harsh desert and peace to an even harsher political climate. Just as his construction of a dam upsets the Yemeni locals, Dr. Jones has to fend off British compatriots livid over the prospect of losing their own salmon supply for the sake of a wealthy outsider's whim.
McGregor is all fumbles and mumbles, a stodgy desk jockey contending with a loveless marriage and an immense task. This is the kind of movie that sees Dr. Jones venturing against the flow of countless pedestrians just as his precious fish must travel, not to mention (laughably) foiling an assassination attempt with the timely cast of a rod. And while the direction hardly earns points for subtlety – Hallström is initially consumed with jostling split-screens, onscreen text and graphics, and snippy narration, all of which soon fall away – McGregor brings quiet grace to an otherwise routine role of mid-life malaise.
Matching him for effortless charm is Blunt, who also gets to bear the brunt of what passes for heavy lifting around these parts when wartime contrivance involving her character's enlisted boyfriend comes to the forefront. Naturally, the inevitable love triangle doesn't arise without some orchestration on the part of Thomas, operating as a PG-13 Malcolm Tucker, an occasionally amusing behind-the-scenes manipulator on par with the film's director.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen ultimately becomes a piece of propaganda about a piece of propaganda, a tidy, touristy reassurance that at least small battles have been won Over There. One must simply take the bait to believe as much.
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