There’s nothing wrong with a good romance on film. There’s nothing wrong with a fluffy story or kooky fantasy, either. These elements only become problematic when they’re not treated in a consistent and believable way.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen could be the odd and endearing story of a British bureaucrat forced to take on the seemingly impossible task of transporting thousands of cold water salmon to the Republic of Yemen for sport. Unfortunately, it’s also a slapdash love triangle between a Shiekh’s British representative, a soldier called into active duty in Afghanistan, and a happily married bureaucrat. It’s also a comedy about public relations in politics, a satire of bureaucracy in general, and an inspirational story about learning to accept fate.
If screenwriter Simon Beaufoy had focused on the actual driving task of Paul Torday’s novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen could have been a great film. Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) is quite skilled at bringing out the romantic nature of odd and endearing stories. He does not need ham-fisted character shifts, blatant melodrama, and 2D almost magical figures to get that vision across. The screenplay is so unfocused and inconsistent that it’s a miracle the film is as watchable as it is.
The cast, though perfectly capable of playing these roles, cannot escape the physics-defying fluidity of the characters. Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones, the bureaucrat, can play an uptight work-obsessed know it all and he can play an idealistic fantasy seeker. Emily Blunt can play a sharp and shrewd businesswoman and a fawning victim of love with ease. Kristin Scott Thomas does not struggle to play the blunt executive or the charming wit.
All three could even combine their character trait pairs into one cohesive vision. With this screenplay, they’re not even given the opportunity. One minute they’re column A; the next, Column B; then back to A; then back to B; on and on until the movie ends in one or the other molds. It’s maddening. There’s no reason to believe that this cast couldn’t have found the truth in this story with a more cohesive screenplay. Instead, they’re stuck creating really beautiful and engaging moments that don’t add up to a single narrative arc between them.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a beautiful film to watch. Everything from the costumes to the sound design is executed to perfection. Are there some moments that take the salmon spawning metaphor a bit too far? Perhaps, but that minor self-indulgence is only used at key moments in the film. Too bad those key moments only act as literal pivots in character or plot rather than a logical extension of an overriding vision.
There are far worse films than Salmon Fishing in the Yemen that distract themselves with cliched romance and poorly defined characters. Somehow, this cast and crew get so much right in their scene by scene execution that a rather messy structure swings back into watchable and endearing.
Thoughts? I wanted to see this in theaters but never got the chance. I’m not exactly crushed by that loss anymore. If they axed the romance between McGregor and Blunt, it would have been a fine inspiring story.