Saturday, April 14, 2012

Angling for Love Among the Salmon

I’m of two minds about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  It’s a story filled with hope and faith and love.  Scenes popped into my mind over the past week: charming scenes, funny scenes (these generally with Kristin Scott Thomas or Conleth Hill).  And yet it left me with mixed feelings, and one of those feelings was annoyance.

The basic story of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is absurd — a Yemeni Sheikh with a really obscene amount of money, a desert stronghold at home, a mansion in Scotland, and a British investment firm, wants to create a river in his desert home and stock it with cold-water-loving salmon.  
(C) 2012 CBS Films

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has marvelous acting throughout, from Amr Waked as the Sheikh (his warmth and gentle philosophizing make him an enormously likeable man); Emily Blunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who works for the investment company that manages the Sheikh’s money and will move heaven and earth to get him what he wants; Tom Mison as her cute boyfriend, Captain Robert Mayers; Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones, a fisheries expert having an adventure or a mid-crisis; the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas as Patricia Maxwell, press secretary to the Prime Minister, with whom she communicates by texting; Conleth Hill as Bernard Sugden, the hapless, not noticeably competent middle manager Dr. Jones works for; and Rachael Stirling as Dr. Jones’ wife Mary.

Yes, wife.  All those snippets and hints of two people falling in love in the trailers — he’s married, and she’s dating a soldier. 

Reeling in at a little over an hour and a half, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a sweet, smooth film in which everything rotten in the world is softened with faith or humor.  Images of salmon swimming upstream to spawn are dropped in throughout the film, but they’re about more than salmon.  They can signify a brainstorm from a dyed-in-the-wool scientist who thinks the Sheikh’s idea is ridiculous. 
Amr Waked and Ewan McGregor in Scotland (c) 2012 CBS Films

These swimming scenes are also about DNA.  Dr. Jones’ marriage is companionable, quiet, they’re good friends — they just may be in a slump when it comes to passion. Then Dr. Jones starts falling for Ms. Chetwode-Talbot.  That’s when the “DNA” comes into play — if it’s in the salmon’s DNA to swim upstream to spawn even if they’ve never been in a stream because they’ve been farmed for generations, then it’s also in the human male’s DNA to move on from the wife of his own age to seek a new, younger mate with whom to procreate. 

Men stray because of DNA.  Swell.

Dr. Jones starts off on this madcap project because he’s forced to — he’s a government employee, something having to do with fisheries and lake fishing and all sorts of fishing — and press agent Patricia needs a good story from the Middle East.  What better than transforming a bit of desert and stocking its river with hardy Scottish fish.  Dr. Jones takes the requisite meetings, not taking them at all seriously.  He extemporaneously lists obstacles to the Sheikh’s notion, what unreachable contrivances would be required to overcome those obstacles, creating a seemingly valid plan to fulfill the Sheikh’s dream.  Ms. Chetwode-Talbot follows up on his off-the-cuff suggestions, and lo, the project is real. These scenes between Blunt and McGregor are absolutely charming.  They make it work.
Despite the skill of these actors, everything about this film’s plot is absurd, so no time should be allowed for the audience to contemplate the inconsistencies and ill-defined time frame.  The story focuses more on the slowly building, sweet love story between Dr. Jones and Ms. Chetwode-Talbot.  And perhaps, just perhaps, allows the audience a little too much time to think.

It’s a pretty fantasy and I enjoyed living in it for 100-odd minutes.  Exploring the fascination with fish — fishing, flies (not the buzzing kind, the kind fly fishermen make to put on their hooks), this lifestyle that can make strangers into lifelong BFFs — was a lark.  The passion that anglers of the United Kingdom felt and acted upon was one of the high points of the film for me.  The ugly real world intrudes a few times, not humorously, but all is forgiven, at least by the Sheikh.  Luckily for the audience, most of the time the ugly world is Kristin Scott Thomas’s job, and she makes it bearable by making it funny.  Sweet scenes live on in my memory.  And then I get annoyed when I remember the writer’s theory of “biological imperative.”  You can always tell a man’s going to leave his wife when he tells a younger woman that he and his wife married very young. 
Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor in the Yemen (c) 2012 CBS Films.
 So, the movie is leisurely, warm, romantic, its characters engaging.  It is beautifully filmed, with claustrophobic workplace and city scenes, traveling to the extraordinary Scottish mansion with its cold river naturally stocked with salmon to the vast desert of the Sheikh’s homeland that he’s trying to fill with a cold-water fish.  The Sheikh loves fishing.  It’s not just about standing hip-deep in cold water, though.  It’s clearly very zen.  This immense, impossible project, if at all feasible, would bring in immediate and future employment to his people (which clearly frightens and angers some of them), not to mention beauty and the potential peace of a bunch of people fishing.  It is, after all, a quiet sport.  It’s a daft idea, to run a river from a dam and fill it with a cold-loving northern fish.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s mad enough to work.

Kristin Scott Thomas is sharp, cruelly funny, and quite wonderful.  Ewan McGregor keeps growing into his leading man status as a mature, interesting, and attractive actor.  Emily Blunt is a pleasure to watch, not just because she’s pretty: her face is mobile, her moods run through her entire body, and she’s just a charmer. 

Lasse Hallström directed Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name) smoothly, eliciting witty performances across the board.  Everyone did their jobs very well, especially if the job was to irk me.  No, really, it’s a fun movie in most ways.  Just that one little thing….

~ Molly Matera, signing off to go outside on a gorgeous spring day, but not to stand hip deep in a river. 

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