'Salmon Fishing' a Decent Rom-Com Catch
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Directed by Lasse Hallström, who has mined similar fields with films from "Chocolat" to "The Shipping News," "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" feels like three partial films jammed into the space one would normally allot for a full one. There's the romance, between Ewan McGregor's fisheries expert and Emily Blunt's high-end PR miracle worker. There's the culture-clash comedy of Blunt's sheik employer Amr Waked trying to import salmon fishing from the rivers of England and Scotland to the low-level rivers of the Yemen, in the Middle East. Finally, there's the political satire and comedy resulting when the salmon-in-Yemen exercise, improbable as it is, becomes a priority for the government so officials can point to England improving parts of the Middle East instead of, you know, only dropping bombs on other parts of it, with Kristin Scott Thomas' iron-fisted press secretary orchestrating all from behind the scenes.
These three sub-stories, adapted from Paul Torday's novel by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours," "Slumdog Millionaire"), come together to make a whole that's a little less than the sum of its parts. The best thing about "Salmon Fishing," in fact, is the romance between McGregor and Blunt. Unlike many rom-coms, the script and performers give us plenty of time and interaction so we can not only see but also understand how these two could come to fall for each other, with a minimum of montage or other lazy cinematic shorthand. The fact that the two have an old-fashioned courtship is also nice -- the sort of romantic-comedy tradition where our young lovers call each other by their last names as they fall in love. It may be less unkind than honest to note that "Salmon Fishing" will play very, very well for parents and older audience members.
At the same time, Thomas -- seemingly on-loan from the scabrous "In the Loop" and its world of cynical strivers trying to hang on in the corridors of power -- is a nice dash of vinegar-sharp comedy to cut the Champagne sparkle of the romance: Between trying to determine if a high-level minister can actually fish or simply fake it for photo-op purposes and berating her son for his hip-hop-influenced fashions, Thomas makes for a nice blast of blunt rudeness to contrast the sweeter, slower moments between Blunt and McGregor.
The story line about Waked's fishing-mad sheik is another story. I suppose it's a sign of the worst kind of "awareness" that I found myself wondering, idly, while the sheik's project is being built -- at first estimate at a cost of $50 million by McGregor, who then updates it on the fly to 50 million pounds -- if the people of the Yemen got to, for example, vote. (They do, but the human rights abuses of the current regime are pretty extreme.) Waked's character is more like a mystic-but-not-overtly religious ("faith" is mentioned; "Allah" is not) riff on, say, Burt Lancaster's dreamer in "Local Hero," even with the addition of local anti-Western forces dead set against the salmon project.
But the romance between Blunt's heartfelt flack and McGregor's more-repressed-than-nutty professor is charming. Hallström knows how to work material like this, as disparate heartbroken people come together in a picturesque and eccentric setting. I found myself wishing "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" would kick itself up to a next level -- perhaps by sharpening the satire, perhaps by using its quixotic goal of fishing in the desert as a goal more metaphorical than literal, accenting its folly instead of its nobility or more in some other way more charged than cute. Considering the other spring movies that, like the salmon, have swum upstream so far in 2012 hoping to survive, "Salmon Fishing" isn't such a shriveled runt you'd throw it back, but a little more attention in the direction and adaptation could have helped it feel a little more developed and fleshed-out than it is.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.