With all the charm, wit and preposterousness that are folded into the best of British comedies these days, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a lovely light comedy with hidden depths spawned by symbolism ... and lots of fish.
The continually diverse Swedish director Lasse Hallström took on the prize-winning novel by Paul Torday and tossed in two of Britain's best for the leads to tell the most unlikely of stories. It's a feel-good fish tale that offers hope for complex relationships - foreign and domestic.
Instigating the plot, an anglophile sheik (Amr Waked), who has developed a love for fly fishing at one of his many British estates, comes up with the wild notion of making salmon available in Yemeni waters. He gives the task to Fitzharris & Price, his land agents, who turn it over to Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt).
Harriet, with all the bright-eyed assurance of youth, contacts fisheries expert Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor). Fred, dangerously close to stodgyism with his undemanding government job, comfy home and 20-year marriage of politeness, fires back a sarcastic email about the scientific impossibilities of such a scheme.
That should be an end of it, but politics intervene. A military debacle in Afghanistan has the prime minister's office scrambling to come up with news emphasizing great relationships between Britain and the Middle East. The Harriet-Fred email exchange comes forward, and the prime minister's press secretary Patricia (Kristin Scott Thomas) sets in motion a bureaucratic series of subtle threats and bribes to get the project rolling.
Involuntarily thrown into creating a plausible plan for this ridiculousness, Fred still begins to fall under the spell of the very persuasive sheik as they share their love of fishing on his more-English-than-England estate. There is profundity to the sheik's vision after all.
The project brings as much reflection as it does absurdity into the lives of Fred and Harriet. They are both a bit at odd ends as Fred's financier wife is in Geneva and Harriet's rather new boyfriend is stationed in Afghanistan. The friendship that develops rings true in its depth and sincerity and is sweetened by the layer of humor that is spread across all of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
These are likable, relatable people on a strange adventure that raises the ire of the populations of both Britain and Yemen. The former is expressed through tabloid attacks on government officials promoting the hare-brained scheme to take their salmon. The latter is expressed, unfortunately, in violence.
McGregor, Blunt, Waked and Thomas are ideal in their roles. Much of the audience's comfort level with this quirky film rests on the brilliant ability of McGregor and Blunt to stay true to these characters without making them as nonsensical as the story. Thomas gets more leeway to chew the scenery, but Waked, an Egyptian actor with a remarkable visage, had to find an interesting balance to center the entire plot without caricature.
Whatever direction that plot takes, you know it is going to be charming, it is going to be witty and it's going to preposterous. The film's message of faith and hope is rather bittersweet given the realities of the relationship between the West and the Middle East these days.