70-word review for the busy: There was a delightful movie waiting to be made here. It’s still waiting.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – about a project to bring 10,000 Atlantic salmon to the Arabian desert – sets up a fun arena for idealism and skepticism to duke it out, a classic tale of “That’s impossible!” vs. “That’s why we’re doing it!”
But then, Salmon Fishing makes a grave mistake: It tries to become a love story.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has its share of charms, and, by way of counterbalance, its share of fish metaphors. It also has a Yemeni sheik who speaks only in abstract nouns. “Faith, Dr. Alfred,” he intones. Then, later: “Hubris, Dr. Alfred.” Thanks, sheikh – those themes would have flown right over our heads, if you hadn’t so tenderly shoved them down our ear canals.
If I’m being harsh, it’s because Salmon Fishing is the most infuriating species of movie: the kind that threatens greatness, and can’t make good on the threat.
It begins promisingly. The enigmatic, wealthy sheikh, having fallen in love with salmon fishing, decides he wants to establish the British sport in the Yemeni desert. Hungry for a feel-good news story out of the Middle East, the British government throws its weight behind the project. A closed-minded Ministry of Fisheries employee (Ewan McGregor) thus finds himself drafted to work alongside the sheikh’s representative (Emily Blunt) to bring the crazy project to fruition.
The early scenes between McGregor and Blunt are the film’s best. Huffy and dismissive, McGregor explains the absurd obstacles involved – the dam to be built, the salmon to be captured, the giant helicopters needed to transport them. “It would cost 40 million dollars,” he says. To his shock, Blunt writes down the number. “I mean… fifty million… pounds.” She corrects her notes, not batting an eyelash. “At least,” he stammers, unable to believe that she’s called his bluff. It’s a funny, well-acted moment – a hint of the energetic underdog comedy that could have been, in which McGregor and Blunt grow from stubborn adversaries to grudging colleagues and then at last to warm friends.
And in fact, over its first hour, the film accomplishes this nicely. It’s when the relationship transgressed past friendship that Salmon Fishing lost me.
The entire time, I found myself swimming upstream against the relentless current of this romance. It made no sense: He was married, she had a boyfriend, and besides, they had nothing in common except British accents and good looks – not exactly a foundation for eternal love. Still, as the ending nears, the lunacy accelerates, each plot twist contrived to make us root for the hook-up. The wife and boyfriend bend over backwards in the effort to disqualify themselves – the wife showing a sudden fit of jealousy, the boyfriend dropping jewels of faint racism. Never mind that these offenses contradict what little we know about the characters – they’ve got to clear the path! Their feeble pre-existing relationships must yield to the inevitable union of McGregor and Blunt, as per some mysterious Darwinian law of movie couples.
And, in chasing after that ill-conceived romance, the screenplay misses out on a far better story, one bobbing within reach.
For McGregor’s character, the fix is easy: This quixotic salmon project should not inspire him to abandon his former life altogether, but to live it with greater purpose and drive. (As boorish as his wife may be, his decision to leave her – conveyed via text message, naturally – strikes me as regression, not growth.)
Blunt’s character arc requires more drastic renovation. As is, her entire story is the swapping of one boyfriend for the next, with a protracted intermission of helplessness. It’s a shame, because the character sits at a fascinating crossroads: She works on a project hand-picked by the government to distract from the war in Afghanistan, even as her boyfriend fights in that very war. This is an intelligent, high-powered, Mandarin-proficient woman – why don’t we see her wrestling with her role in geopolitics? Why doesn’t she ask the question, desperately clamoring to be asked, of whether the salmon project is a profound symbol or a devious sideshow?
I have no problem with Salmon Fishing’s cheery optimism about the power of faith, or its glibly apolitical take on this deeply political story. The premise offers several paths to follow, and lighthearted, uplifting comedy is a fine choice. Romantic comedy, sadly, is not – at least, not with these mismatched protagonists.
Would the movie I’m suggesting – a triumph-of-the-underdog story where the stars depart not as lovers but friends – have sold as many tickets? Maybe not. But it sure would have been more fun to watch.