Hook, line and mediocre

DEC 25 -

I’ll admit it was the title. ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ is an intriguing combination of words on any given day. It teases you with its straightforwardness; an obvious mislead, it promises you that the insipidity of the name itself is indication of the unexpected, quirky treat you’re in for. Well, as it turns out, the film contained within the title is just as bland, and in that, very disappointing, given the excellent leads and the otherwise ample (but waning in recent years) credibility of director Lasse Hallström, known for such past greats as The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, and later on clunkers like Casanova and the awful, awful Dear John. Based on a nifty satirical text by Paul Torday that was a big seller in the UK, the screen adaptation of Salmon Fishing is a too-watered-down version that eschews the premises’ potential for witty eccentricity and political satire, relying instead on formulaic, been-there romantic drama.

The stuffy and awkwardly formal Dr Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is an employee of the fisheries office in London. The only bright spot in Fred’s dour existence, compounded by a passionless marriage and a boring job, is his love of fish. It is this expertise on aquatic life that brings him into contact with the rosy-cheeked Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a PR executive, who has just taken on a foreign client with a rather bizarre scheme. Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) is an obscenely wealthy (not to mention annoyingly placid) ‘visionary’ from Yemen, who wants, yes you guessed it, to introduce salmon fishing into his country, with Britain’s help. When contacted for advice on the subject, Fred is immediately and understandably dismissive of such a ludicrous venture, but upon meeting with Harriet and the Sheikh, comes to realise that both are extremely serious about the idea, not to mention very, very resourceful. And given the pressure from his higher ups—even the PM’s office is involved, sensing the PR potential in the project—and with wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) too focused on her career (the nerve of the woman!) to pay him much mind, there is little stopping Fred from giving in.

So it is that he finds himself in Yemen, amid exotic peoples and locales, and in the constant company of the pretty Harriet while they survey the building of the fisheries, living out of tents. What else to do in such circumstances but fall in love? And so they get on with it, although there is the small matter of Harriet’s boyfriend and Fred’s marriage. Still, love they must, and they do, under the benevolent gaze of that matchmaker-in-robes, the Sheikh. The film rounds up pretty much as rom-coms are expected to do, with a few non-trajectory-altering twists in between. Suffice it to say that you’ll be dead sick of the whole salmon-swimming-upstream metaphor by the time credits roll.

McGregor and Blunt carry this shaky film entirely on their shoulders; if not for the believable interplay between the two, Salmon Fishing would’ve been unwatchable, really. McGregor, in particular, U-turns from his usual pretty-boy persona, and embodies the fuddy-duddy Jones to the last, putting that Scottish accent to excellent use. And Blunt, well, her considerable skills are wasted in films such as this, that allow her to do little but look alternately amused and forlorn. Also making an appearance, and a very welcome one at that, is the formidable Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the PM’s tough-talking and razor-sharp press secretary, probably the only role in the film that seems to have been designed with some fun in mind. Otherwise, as great as the performances are, the actors are trapped within a script that loses all the steam it had in its opening scenes, petering off into mushiness and predictable nonsense towards the end.

That nonsense couldn’t be more apparent than in the case of the enigmatic Sheikh. Now I can appreciate the attempt to shun the ‘Arab terrorist’ stereotype, but the film just resorts to another over-exploited cliché—that of the Middle Eastern mystic, which should’ve been laid to rest with Indiana Jones. Poor Waked is made to spout some unfathomably cheesy platitudes about faith and dreams, which would’ve been hilarious had the film not taken them so seriously. And that’s essentially the biggest issue with Salmon Fishing—it is so very earnest.

Considering the ridiculousness of the concept of transporting thousands of salmon spawn to a desert land on the whims of a rich man—although the whole fishery enterprise still smacks of selfish indulgence, regardless of how it’s portrayed as a project to ‘benefit’ local Yemeni communities—there couldn’t have been more room for good old-fashioned British buffoonery. Yes, it does try to incorporate that screwball factor into the little political intrigue that makes for a sub-plot, but—particularly evident in the by-the-numbers romantic comedy that Hallström prioritises—irony is missing overall, the one thing that could’ve salvaged the film.

In many ways, Salmon Fishing is the worst kind of production, in that it fails to rise above mediocrity and doesn’t fall too far below it either to be a memorable dud. No, it just floats listlessly in the middle, too tidy, too safe, and drowning (oh, how the puns abound) in fishy symbolism and uber-inspirational homilies. None for me, thanks.

Posted on: 2012-12-25 08:32