The second day in Toronto starts with a movie I have been looking forward to, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a romantic comedy directed by Lasse Hallstrom, whose movies are usually a safe bet. The producer comes on and tells us how the desert set, which took four months to build, was destroyed in about ten minutes by a flash flood. Then we find out that Hallstrom is there to introduce the movie. The audience starts to buzz. Then we find out that some of the cast members are also there. The audience starts to really buzz. Ewan McGregor! Emily Blunt! Gracing us with their star-powered presence!
Hallstrom comes out and speaks effusive sweet nothings about the movie, the actors and the book on which it is based. McGregor, Blunt and Amr Waked are introduced. They grin at the audience and at each other. We dutifully take their pictures. Then we find out there will be no Q&A afterwards. We’ll just have to be satisfied with seeing them in the flesh.
Salmon fishing in Yemen? Preposterous, you say. Everyone knows salmon need cool water (you did know that, right?). Ewan McGregor is a fish expert working for the British government who gets drafted into this scheme by a sheik (Amr Waked) who loves to fish on his estate in Scotland. Emily Blunt works for the firm that manages the sheik’s investments. Kristin Scott Thomas is the prime minister’s press secretary who thinks the project would be good PR for the British government.
Will the buttoned-up Scotsman find true love? Will the erstwhile couple be able to shed themselves of their other romantic entanglements? Can salmon thrive in the mountains of Yemen?
If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy, you can probably figure out the answers to the first two questions. McGregor and Blunt make a plausible couple, but it’s Scott Thomas who steals the movie as hard charging story spinner.
No doubt it helped to see the movie in a large theater, packed with an enthusiastic audience that laughed at all the right moments. Earlier movies by Hallstrom ( My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) were populated with interesting characters and full of emotional complexity. Compared to those, Salmon Fishing is pure fluff.
My second movie of the day was First Position, which is reminiscent of other children-in-competition documentaries like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. Director Bess Kargman and her crew followed six kids competing in an international ballet competition. The winners don’t just get prizes, but scholarships, work contracts and a chance to be seen by recruiters from ballet companies.
Kargman found a diverse group of kids – a young man from Columbia who wants to support his family by being a dancer, a U.S. Navy brat living in Italy, a sister and brother from suburbia, and others. Thankfully, no villains emerge. Kargman wrings enough tension from the kids’ daily lives and from the competition.
My audience was full of enthusiasm, which was no doubt bolstered by the presence of quite a few aspiring dancers. They rewarded Kargman with a standing ovation at the end.
As a documentary, First Position doesn’t break any new ground, but the subjects’ lives and their dancing makes for a good story. Of the four films I’ve seen at this year’s festival, this is my favorite so far.