Stuffy government fisheries scientist Fred (Ewan McGregor) is asked by a fishing-obsessed Arab Sheik (Amr Waked) to do the seemingly impossible – introduce British salmon to the Wadis of the Yemen. Despite considerable trepidation, Fred is finally won over by the charismatic Arab, who reveals that fishing brings him closer to God, and he hopes it will have the same effect on his countrymen. Fred also begins to fall for the Sheik's beautiful legal representative Harriet (Emily Blunt); and so he rises to the Sheik's eccentric challenge, casting off his English reserve on a transformative journey of self discovery and late blooming love.
After earning an Oscar nomination for 1999’s The Cider House Rules and crafting that tasty confection Chocolat the following year, Swedish director Lasse Hallström became a Hollywood hack, churning out sentimentally-drenched dross including The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life, the virtually unsighted Hachiko: A Dog's Story and the inexplicably popular Dear John.
So it’s no surprise that Hallström’s latest effort, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is a disjointed, creatively confused and seldom entertaining mess despite the pedigree of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty), who adapted a Paul Torday novel.
Here’s a movie that crosses multiple genres, each time shifting gears so awkwardly that if it were a car you could hear the gearbox protesting. The result is a hodgepodge of political satire (the novel’s primary trope), sappy melodrama, larky comedy and tame romance, with a dash of terrorism thrown in for (not) good measure.
Sounding more Scottish than he has since 1996’s Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor plays Dr. Fred Jones, a fisheries expert in the public service. He’s asked to help create a salmon fishing oasis in the desert of Yemen, stocked with 10,000 fish imported from the UK. The seemingly nutty idea is the brainchild of the ambitious and obscenely wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked), a keen amateur fisherman who’s willing to spend £50 million ($76 million) to make it happen.
The proposal is conveyed by the Sheik’s representative Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a sassy investment consultant. Fred says no but changes his mind when his boss threatens to fire him after the Prime Minister’s press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) seizes on the idea of the government supporting the project as a positive news story to offset the grim reports emanating from Afghanistan. There are 2 million fisherfolk in the UK, apparently, so Patricia imagines the issue will be a vote winner.
After initially quarrelling, Harriet and Fred appear destined to hook up as they spend time in the Yemen and at the Sheik’s estate in Scotland, despite the inconvenient facts of him being married and her having a handsome new boyfriend (Tom Mison), a Captain in the British Army.
So the script contrives to make both partners depart for different reasons while establishing Fred’s wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) as such a cold, unsympathetic and unattractive character, it’s no surprise that he looks elsewhere for affection. When Fred tentatively raises the topic of having children, Mary is so distracted she doesn’t answer.
But therein lies a major problem. McGregor portrays Fred as such a stuffy, uptight, socially awkward and humourless bureaucrat why would the gorgeous, passionate, free-spirited Harriet fancy him?
The film derives most of its energy and flair from Scott Thomas’ take-no-prisoners, ball-busting mistress of spin and manipulation.
Waked’s Islamic Sheik is intelligent, cultured, much-married (a passing reference) and an enigma: he’s given a short speech in which he outlines his supposedly noble aims in building the fish-filled sanctuary but the suspicion remains that this is very rich man’s folly or indulgence.
A sub-plot involving efforts to sabotage the project by the Sheik’s enemies is thinly developed and wildly implausible, given the phalanx of security goons guarding him and the dam.
The setting in Yemen is almost irrelevant as the film ignores the country’s history, current living conditions and the overall state of Middle Eastern politics.
Beaufoy’s script is lamentably short on gags apart from a stream of witty one-liners from Scott Thomas’ delightfully pungent, salty-tongued Patricia, and a bit of byplay between the bureaucrats and politicians; much of the dialogue is clunky.
Hallström orchestrates the whole affair in a pedestrian manner, using broad strokes with no hint of subtlety or finesse, over-egged by Dario Marianelli’s swooning score.