Friday, March 30, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Quite a catch!

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for mild sexual content, brief violence and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.30.12

The British film industry’s gift for gentle whimsy is as inherently cultural as French cinema’s way with erotic comedies: in both cases utterly captivating, and absolutely impossible to reproduce on our shores (although, goodness knows, plenty of people have tried).

When Britain's sporting anglers pitch a headline-making fit over the notion of
shipping 50,000 wild salmon to a foreign country, Fred (Ewan McGregor) and
Harriet (Emily Blunt) wonder whether farm-raised substitutes could serve the
same purpose. The problem, Fred fears, is that such commercially bred fish
might not possess the necessary spawning instinct.
Our British cousins have a knack for making fun of themselves in a way that’s both stylish and just barbed enough to demonstrate a level of sophisticated method to the madness. By comparison, American filmmakers inevitably seem crass and adolescent. The Brits give us Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually; we give them The Hangover and — soon — The Three Stooges.


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charmer very much in the vein of Four Weddings, Notting Hill, The Closer You Get, Pirate Radio and numerous other examples that leap to mind. Equal parts romantic comedy, environmental fantasy, faith-based parable and shrewd political commentary, scripter Simon Beaufoy’s handling of Paul Torday’s novel — which I absolutely must read — is brought to the screen with unerring precision by director Lasse Hallström.

Hallström, you will recall, is the sharp-eyed observer of human nature who burst on the scene back in 1985, with My Life As a Dog, made in his native Sweden. He followed that hit with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News and the under-appreciated An Unfinished Life, among others. You’ll note a common theme of misfit characters existing just slightly outside mainstream society, often trying to make their way in a world — or among customs — they’re simply not equipped to understand.

That’s certainly the case with Dr. Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), an exacting fisheries expert happily ensconced within his own little world, deep in the far-flung bowels of an obscure branch of the British government. You just know that all the pens in his desk drawer face in the same direction, and that’s true ... but he also keeps a collapsible fly rod at hand, which he uses each morning to hurl an inked casting weight, dart-like, toward a picture of his stuffy boss (Conleth Hill). Black smudges attest to frequent bull’s-eyes.

Fred’s comfortable, well-constructed world is interrupted one day by an e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), acting as a representative for the enormously wealthy Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked). The sheikh maintains a massive sporting estate in Scotland, specifically so he can indulge his passion for salmon fishing. But that isn’t enough: He wants to work an environmental miracle in his home country, bringing water to the inhospitable desert and jump-starting an agricultural Renaissance, hopefully to promote peace and spiritual reflection in a land ravaged by conflict.

And, along the way, introducing salmon for his own pleasure.

Would “Dr. Alfred” be willing to act as a consultant?

Fred, quite reasonably, regards this notion as the implausible ravings of somebody with far more money than sense. Too many blindingly obvious issues stand in the way, starting with dodgy year-round temperatures, a rather glaring absence of streams and larger bodies of water for spawning, and — oh, yes — the salmon themselves.

Fred dismisses Harriet’s effort to act as intermediary: not exactly unkindly — it isn’t in his nature to be unkind — but certainly with the condescending tone of a math professor lecturing an inattentive student on the fundamentals of adding 2 plus 2 to get 4. She bears this lambasting with gracious good humor. And there, possibly, the matter might have dropped.

Ah, but the need for political “spin” often trumps reason and uncooperative facts. Following an explosive event in the Middle East, the British Prime Minister’s chief PR handler — Kristin Scott Thomas, as Patricia Maxwell — desperately seeks a positive, upbeat story that can be used to deflect attention from government fecklessness. What could be better than sharing the sport of angling with another culture?

Just like that, Fred finds himself assigned to Harriet and the sheikh. Funny thing, too: The sheikh — fully comprehending the enormity of what he proposes — has an abiding trust that faith will be rewarded. And, as Fred discovers, this conviction proves contagious.

These disparate characters are played to perfection, their various inter-relations punctuated by the sort of droll, saucy dialogue that we’d love to be able to deliver ourselves. Beaufoy has a marvelous ear for the rhythm and cadence of speech, and of droll verbal byplay; he has charmed us before with his scripts for The Full Monty and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day ... and, in a slightly different vein, with his Oscar-winning adaptation of Slumdog Millionaire.

McGregor and Blunt have great fun, right off the bat, as Fred and Harriet make gentle sport of each other’s names; this becomes a cute running gag whose use parallels their blossoming mutual attraction. Alas, nothing can come of this comradely bond; Fred is married to a similarly workaholic wife (Rachael Stirling) who seems uniquely suited to his “absent-minded professor” mannerisms, while Harriet has just begun a passionate relationship with a soldier (Tom Mison) recently dispatched to Afghanistan.

McGregor makes excellent use of his native Scottish accent, the rolling impenetrability of Fred’s brogue rising in direct proportion to his level of exasperation. McGregor also makes his character a beguiling blend of social awkwardness and intellectual grace; Fred’s enthusiasm for his subject — the fire that dances in his eyes, as he comes to believe that maybe, just maybe, this harebrained notion isn’t entirely daft — makes being smart seem cool.

Blunt has an enchanting gift for playing women who remain unfazed by daft behavior and unlikely circumstance; she had much to do with grounding the sci-fi trappings of last year’s The Adjustment Bureau, and her Harriet seems equally comfortable here. Is the sheikh out of his mind? Quite possibly, but hasn’t humanity always embraced visionaries who dream huge?

Then, too, Harriet knows how to “play” Fred, much the way he’d patiently play a fish; the captivating thing is that he’s fully aware of this, but doesn’t seem to mind.

At the same time, Blunt has the added challenge of being the one character who endures a credible, real-world crisis: a melodramatic subplot which, in lesser hands, could sink a (mostly) lighthearted comedy such as this. She and Hallström know just how far to go, without losing the story’s essential tone.

The always dependable Scott Thomas is flat-out hilarious as the bull-in-a-china-shop PR spin-meister, oblivious to all else in her quest to craft a situation to her advantage. She also delivers the film’s funniest line: ironically arriving as Patricia deals with a sullen son, rather than anything having to do with wealthy sheikhs or reluctant fish experts.

Even her e-mail exchanges with the never-seen Prime Minister are a stitch. We can imagine Scott Thomas waspishly biting off each syllable, as Patricia composes frustrated messages on her hand-held device of choice.

Waked’s Sheikh Muhammed is a marvelous island of calm in this sea of rising chaos: wholly believable as a refined man of faith who worries that he may be letting human hubris steer him into actions best left in the hands of God. This isn’t an idle concern; his own countrymen include religious radicals all too willing to punish a perceived “transgressor” who presumes too much, or embraces too many “Western ways.”

This contemporary, real-world subtext is a thoughtful bonus atop a premise that’s fascinating by its very nature, and an execution that successfully integrates so many different emotional arcs. Hallström, Beaufoy, and the entire cast keep this delicate soufflé from collapsing, and our reward is a charming “what if?” parable.

What’s not to love?

1 comment:

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