In Lasse Hallstrom movies (like Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and now Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), special individuals originally thought of by normal society as outsiders eventually draw the so-called “normal” people in and help them bring imagination, passion, and joy to their staid lives. In this movie, it’s a super-wealthy Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed, with his vision of bringing the sport of salmon-fishing to the deserts of the Yemen who sets things in motion. While it’s difficult to imagine that anyone as captivating as Emily Blunt has a “blah” life, her character Harriet works in a British investment management company, looking after the sheikh’s interests in the UK. As the first step in “the salmon project”, she contacts fisheries expert Dr. Alfred “Fred” Jones, played by Ewan McGregor. McGregor is one of my favourite actors because he is able to play a character who is pretty dull (like Dr. Jones) and nevertheless sparkle with a kind of charming enthusiasm that gets you on his side. Not since watching A River Runs Through It many years ago has fishing seemed so appealing. At first Jones thinks (as one might expect) that the project is a joke, but as a bit of fortuitous timing, the Prime Minister’s press secretary (played by the always-British Kristin Scott Thomas) is looking for a positive Anglo-Arab story to counteract the negative press from various war stories so she leans her political weight onto getting this project underway. As the project progresses, Jones and Harriet develop a bond that blossoms as she learns that her boyfriend is “missing in action” on the war front and she leans on Jones’s shoulder for comfort.
Generally, I am not a big fan of romantic comedies (mostly because Hollywood’s formula is more common than Diet Coke, and twice as saccharin). However, I like the British ones because often they take the somewhat predictable arc of a romantic comedy, sprinkle some dry British humour, and avoid many of the head-poundingly obvious pitfalls. Rest assured, in this movie there was no inopportune walking-in on the wrong people kissing; no big screw-up by the protagonist that leads to an apology speech in the last five minutes; and definitely no run to the airport or train station to catch anyone before he/she leaves his/her life for good. Nevertheless, with two leads as charming as Blunt and McGregor, there is also no doubt that they belong and will end up together. The movie is pretty straightforward; and that’s definitely one of its strengths.
While the performances by Blunt and McGregor were pretty good, I wasn’t too surprised by that. I was, however, pleasantly delighted by the character of the sheikh, played by Amr Waked (who has many IMDB credits to his name, but I had never seen before). He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time but he is a very likeable character who acknowledges that his vision might seem a bit crazy. He possesses a kind of elegant and tranquil personality that is founded on faith and a sense of peace that is quite refreshing.
I like that, in true Hallstrom style, it’s not just the romance that saves these characters from their previously-unsatisfying lives. There’s something more going on. Whether it’s the salmon fishing (or the magical chocolate), something gets these characters unstuck and gives them a fresh perspective on themselves and their lives. That’s what makes them capable of loving and being loved. It’s a wonderfully understated yet positive message that warms the heart. Just what you’d expect from such a movie (4 out of 5).