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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a fun satire, although its agile leads are forced to swim upstream when it comes to the romantic entanglements.

Angling Times

Harriet and Alfred are in a fishy relationship
Harriet and Alfred are in a fishy relationship

The story works best when taken strictly as a cynical commentary on governmental affairs around the world. After British forces drop an errant bomb on a mosque in Afghanistan, Number 10 Downing Street is desperate for some good news to propagate.

Enter Sheik Muhammad (Amr Waked, Syriana), a soulful man who has a crazy vision of introducing salmon into Yemen. That’d include salmon, water, and all the tourism and fishy merchandise the coupling brings with it.

Recruited to make that vision a reality are Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt, The Adjustment Bureau) and Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor, The Men Who Stare at Goats). She works for an estate management firm. He’s a scientist in Britain’s National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. Harriet’s boyfriend (of three weeks) has been carted off on a military mission; Alfred’s a henpecked husband whose marriage has seen happier days.

Some of the goofy Parliamentary machinery plays out like a toned-down Monty Python skit. The romantic angle? Well, consider it collateral damage.

Faith, Fish, and Science

Bringing salmon to Yemen is an odd premise and all of the characters know it. But that odd premise serves as the launching point for a number of entertaining characters and thematic elements.

Of course there’s the dopey boss, who lords over poor Alfred like a character out of the Dilbert comic strip. The man lives in fear of having to actually get something done, especially when he’s tasked with corralling 10,000 salmon for export from British waterways. That’s a move that’ll have Britain’s 2 million fisherman (voters one and all) packing their pitchforks and torches in protest of the environmental violation.

But Alfred and Harriet also pack some quirks in their baggage. He doesn’t drink, except for maybe a drink on the weekend, and his sense of humor barely registers, although he’s the first to acknowledge, jokingly, that people with Asperger Syndrome are difficult to offend. For her part, Harriet is totally with it, she even speaks Mandarin, but her love life is lame.

The soul of the movie, though, comes from Sheik Muhammad. He’s a wise, calm man with the kind of treasure chest that, along with a little patience, could make something special happen. But he also knows there are elements in Yemen that see bringing water to the desert – and effectively the importation of Western ways – as an affront to God. For the sheik, the salmon project could very well be life endangering.

The sheik warns that the project will only work if everybody goes into it with open hearts. It’s a trite sentiment, but very true. And he goes on to an important realization that the project’s ultimate success will be reliant upon making it a community project rather than an isolated, ivory-tower project implemented between the sheik, Alfred, and Harriet.

Buy the Book

The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy is based on the 2007 novel by Paul Torday. The book is a clever piece of work; it’s presented as a collection of e-mails, letters, diary entries, and magazine articles that document this most unusual project involving various agencies of the British government. It’s an inventive, albeit sometimes forced, way to present the different viewpoints of the lead characters – through their own missives and third-party articles.

For his part, Beaufoy’s no stranger to adapting books for the big screen; other such cases on his résumé include his Oscar-nominated adaptation for 127 Hours and his Oscar-winning adaptation of Slumdog Millionaire. In this case, while the overall tone is right, Beaufoy stumbles a bit, particularly while trying to flesh out the lead characters’ other halves.

Torday makes Alfred’s falling out of love with Mrs. Jones (Rachael Stirling, The Young Victoria) much more appreciable; she is unpleasant enough in the movie, but the book makes a better case. The real problem, however, comes with Harriet and her boyfriend.

It’s really hard to understand what Beaufoy was thinking when he tried to make an impactful relationship out of a three-week fling. It’s a flimsy enough relationship even Harriet acknowledges when she says, “I never really got the chance to get to know him.” Even so, she shuts herself off from the rest of the world for dramatic effect when he goes missing in action.

Why not, as in the book, let her be engaged to her long-time boyfriend? Therein would be a more substantial basis for fretting and personal upheaval. Alas, even then, this is really only an adaptation of half the book. The other half of the movie is pure mainstream cinema that plays up the romantic triangle and seeks out a comfortable, happy ending that does a disservice to Torday’s work.

Mad Maxwell

Sometimes tinkering with the source material simply doesn’t make sense and that kind of narrative noodling was taken to much less agreeably egregious levels in another Emily Blunt movie, The Devil Wears Prada. It’s an unfortunate miscalculation on the part of Beaufoy and director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules) because Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a very good movie, could’ve been a really great movie had they simply honored the more honest relationships in Torday’s book.

While Beaufoy bumbles with Harriet and Alfred’s relationship, he’s fortunate McGregor and Blunt are so darn likable. They make the movie’s muddled relationships bearable through their own sheer personal charisma.

That said, there is one particularly big win for the movie version. In the book the Prime Minister’s director of communications is Peter Maxwell, a self-serving son of a gun. The movie is blessed instead with Patricia Maxwell, a role played with a whole bunch of relish and vinegar by Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient). It’s a scene-stealing role for Thomas, who chirps, “Your turrets are blocking my reception” when her cell phone can’t complete calls on the sheik’s estate.

Patricia Maxwell is both caricature and character. An aggressive, yet affectionately domineering concoction, she fits in well as a woman-who-has-it-all foil to the incomplete lives led by Alfred and Harriet.