Director Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, An Unfinished Life) returns with another subtle depiction of one’s pursuit of happiness in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Best seen as the story of Fred, a burned out government fishing expert called upon to guide the title’s impossible goal, this movie marks a turning point in Mr. Hallstrom’s brilliant career.
Set in London and the English countryside, with a climactic trip to the title country, Mr. Hallstrom manages to indulge us in a place, as he did with the frigid North in The Shipping News, colorful New England in The Cider House Rules, Venetian Italy in Casanova and the American West in An Unfinished Life. And he thankfully returns to form following a dreary thematic departure with Dear John. Here, the Swedish native, my favorite living director and also a friend, infuses a spiritual yet secular story – giving the term faith the broadest possible meaning – with irony, wit and benevolence. In this sense, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen succeeds in giving us a small slice of triumph and splendor.
As in his wry character study, The Hoax, Mr. Hallstrom, with Simon Beaufoy’s (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) script, gently floats the comedy. “Did you get my e-mail?” asks one government bureaucrat to another. “Yes,” comes the reply, followed without missing a beat by, “what did it say?” This sort of thing makes the movie more fun and, with serious subplots about a soldier missing in action in Afghanistan, a mid-life marriage in crisis and Islamic terrorists stalking the highly complicated project, it’s a welcome addition. The creators unfortunately do not take evil, religious terrorists or their motives as seriously as they should, which I personally find appalling. In one scene, someone practically apologizes for an act of terrorism.
But that is not the purpose of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which is perfectly scored by Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, Agora). Beginning with an elementary montage of water, fish and man casting a line, and centered upon neurotic, overly habituated Fred (Ewan MacGregor), the story proceeds to dramatize how to swim upstream, against time and tide, which most of us try or aim to do every other day. Highly skilled Fred does it gamely, falling for an equally talented project partner named Harriet (Emily Blunt), whose boyfriend has gone off to war in Afghanistan while she tries to put that thought out of her head and make an idealistic Yemeni sheik’s goal a reality. For his part, the sheik (Amr Waked) regards faith as the key to getting things done, by which the movie apparently means something like taking risks without full knowledge.
The impetus for the $50 million undertaking – involving a dam engineered by the Chinese, a special type of salmon, bedrock and local demand – is the troubled Anglo-Arab relations, which is where Kristin Scott Thomas’s cigarette-sucking government media bureaucrat comes in. Her no-nonsense pragmatist senses a net positive for her party-run media concern (the BBC) and tries to pull everything together to the Prime Minister’s advantage. Patience, tolerance and humility may be what the sheik has in mind but her state-sponsored media mistress is having none of that. In any case, she moves mountains to foster what at its root is an attempt by the sheik to bring water, life and Western civilization to tribalistic, even barbaric, Yemen, though no one in this movie would dare to put it that way.
Yet those tribal Yemenis might have something to say and do about salmon fishing in the Yemen, which might include suicide bombers. The movie wrongly implies that Islamic terrorists have a point, which amounts to sanction and, while that is a problem, it’s a familiar leftist refrain and not so virulent that a rational person can’t jettison that tripe from an otherwise enjoyable film. The characters, Fred and Harriet and the sheik, exist to build a dam and improve life in Yemen and the reality is that it’s practically impossible. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen asks us to believe in the damming, the fishing and the creation of manmade things in spite of impossible odds.
As the work progresses, married Fred falls for Harriet and struggles to find a non-conformist way out of his neurotic habits – pleading in a scene with Harriet to “forgive the grammatical inadequacies” of his sentence – as Harriet must choose whether to abide and the sheik, the first to express admiration for something Fred creates, strives to walk what he calls the fine line between glorifying that which God made and that which man made. With Harriet telling Fred what he longs to hear out loud – that he should be happy – and Fred showing Harriet what she yearns to see for real – that the good is possible – and everyone including the “odd heathen” working to realize salmon fishing in the Yemen, the picture’s blessed vision for harmonious happiness here on earth, what may have been an Arab sheik’s vanity project may become a place for good people to go against the tide and live in peace. That’s the idea, though Kristin Scott Thomas’s cynic isn’t betting on it, and it is beautifully and thoughtfully expressed.