The Austin Chronicle

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Rated PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Conleth Hill.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 30, 2012

Oh, but how a satirist like Chris Morris (Four Lions) or Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) might have made mincemeat (barbed-B-Q?) of the enjoyably preposterous premise of Paul Torday's 2007 British comic novel. It's about a superwealthy sheik who hatches an implausible-seeming scheme to build a manmade river in Yemen and stock it with salmon flown in from the United Kingdom – a grand vision and/or colossal folly the British Press Office throws its weight (and its bureaucracy) behind, so hungry is it for an Anglo-Arab photo op that doesn't involve a bombed-out mosque or dead servicemen. Swedish director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, Dear John) is no satirist – he's too hardwired for people-pleasing to go in for the kill – but taken on its own terms, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen marks a sweet little ripple in restorative waters.

Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Salmon Fishing stars Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria) as Harriet, investment consultant to a wealthy Yemeni sheik (Waked) and tasked with turning his dream of fly-fishing in the desert into reality. To that end, she enlists resistant Alfred (McGregor), a sweater-vested pencil-pusher in the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture who considers the whole proposition total tosh. Alfred is socially awkward and indifferently married (after lovemaking, his wife pats his back and murmurs, "That should do you for a while"), and at first, his robust Scottish brogue – which sounds like a second cousin to a cat hacking up a hair ball – is the most red-blooded facet of his persona. But as he warms to Harriet and the sheik's shared vision – and warms to Harriet, too – Alfred becomes more animated. Camaraderie, it turns out, is the reagent for this scientist wobbling toward spiritual awakening.

After a sparky first half greatly aided by Kristin Scott Thomas' devilish turn as an unsentimental press secretary, Salmon Fishing grows soggier. It's such a pretty, witty gloss of a picture, it hardly knows what to do with real-world terror, hence the Snidely Whiplash-like limning of Muslim extremists. There is also the issue of the developing feelings between Harriet and Alfred. (One remembers his earlier performance in bed with a wince; best of luck to you, Harriet!) There is nothing uncharming about McGregor and Blunt here, but still, I rather preferred them as platonic, if tender, friends. It's a better fit for a good-natured film about soothing the soul, not exciting the senses.

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