Fishing tales are supposed to be tall, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a whopper. Based on the novel by Paul Torday, Salmon is both a satire of governmental machinations and a gentle romantic comedy. The (admittedly improbable) premise involves a consultant named Harriet (lithe and lovely Emily Blunt of Young Victoria fame) who works for an English company hoping to facilitate the dream of a Yemeni sheikh who loves British-style fly fishing and will spend however many millions it takes to create a viable salmon stream in the middle of his desert-rich country.
Harriet, a blithe charmer, goes angling for a fisheries expert in the back eddies of the appropriate government bureaucracy and ends up with Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a fish-loving fusspot and borderline sufferer of Asperger Syndrome who dismisses her request for assistance with withering disdain.
Enter the prime minister’s press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), a vicious, skilful, and wonderfully sarcastic practitioner of the bureaucratic black arts. The PM desperately needs a positive Anglo-Arab photo op and this loony project just might be it. So, quicker than you can say “you’re going to Yemen or you’re fired,” the good doctor heads off with Harriet to the tiny desert realm at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
Hurdles are met and overcome (including an assassination attempt on the sheikh and the not-so-minor requirement for 10,000 mature salmon to pump into the water). But the biggest hurdle of all is facilitating the budding romance between Harriet and Alfred, not least because Harriet is grieving the loss of her lover, a Special Forces soldier who is MIA in Afghanistan. And Alfred presents his own challenges: aside from being stiff and nerdy, Alfred is also married, albeit under increasingly dubious circumstances.
Veteran director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) is up to the challenge of juggling this and all other subplots, but his job is made easier by the excellent performances of the principals — especially Thomas, who has a criminal amount of fun, whether she is bossing around governmental minions or out-swearing her ghastly teenage son.
Salmon has a few ragged edges, and the character of the luminously wise Sheikh Muhammed seems terribly dated. Overall, though, the film’s satiric japes and whimsical romantic spirit are an attractive respite from the harsh vulgarity that is too often what passes for cinematic comedy these days. M
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen ★★ ★
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt
PG-13 – 107 minutes
Continues at the Odeon
With a noble Scot in the lead role and close-ups of Scottish salmon throughout the film, it’s time to reach for a very special single malt. Laphroaig is one of the most distinctive of the Islay malts — which is to say, it reeks of peat smoke and iodine and is a brutal beauty of the love-it-or-hate-it variety. The classic Laphroaig was delisted in B.C. several years ago, and replaced by the tony and pricy “quarter cask” bottling (that never won me over). The 10-year-old original is now back on the shelves, and even though the price has jumped from $55 to $83, it’s still worth the investment.