‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ hooks viewers with gentle eccentricity, but under Lasse Hallstrom's direction, can't land the big one
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which works hard at being quirky, hooks a viewer early on but fails in the end fully to reel one in.
When you keep wishing a movie would devote more time to a supporting character rather than the leads, it’s never a good sign.
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That’s the case with this slight British dramedy in which Kristin Scott Thomas gives a broad but extremely funny performance as Patricia Maxwell, a tough-talking, take-charge press aide to the British Prime Minister. Every time she appears, cell phone glued to her ear or barking orders, the movie gets a great whoosh of energy and a swift satirical kick in the pants.
She doesn’t pop up enough. “Salmon Fishing” spends most of its time focusing on the budding relationship between Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a fish expert and lowly civil servant, and Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a business consultant. They have paired up to carry out the pet project of a moneybags Arab sheik (Egyptian actor Amr Waked), who hopes to bring salmon fishing to the arid lands of his native Yemen.
At the movie’s heart is how Jones, stuck in a dull job and a stagnating marriage, comes to realize that it’s time he, like the salmon, started swimming upstream.
And what exactly is Thomas’ character’s part in all this? She drives herd on the project, reckoning she can exploit it to promote Anglo-Arab relations by scoring feel-good news coverage once the British salmon are jumping onto fisherman’s hooks in Yemen. She’s soon IM-ing the prime minister to ask if he knows how to fish.
“Salmon” is based on a 2006, popular satirical novel by Paul Torday, a British businessman turned late-in-life author (he signed to publish the book at age 59 and has since put out five more novels). The novel was epistolary in form (including letters, texts, emails, government memos, etc.) and traces of that structure are evident in the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
As directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“Dear John”), the screen version of “Salmon” lacks the book’s bite. It tries too hard to be gently eccentric and, toward the end, there’s near audible clanking as a complicating plot development or two are wedged in awkwardly.
McGregor gives his native Scottish accent a workout here. He makes for an appealing Everyman hero and at least looks like he knows what he’s doing in scenes where he works a rod and reel. Blunt has a trickier character to play, mostly because hers is less fully developed. Scene by scene, the actress registers, but one leaves the movie with no sense of who her character really is or caring much whether she and Jones will end up together.
To use a word that turns up more often on the other side of the pond, “Salmon Fishing” is a bit too twee.