For the past decade, seeing director Lasse Hallström’s name attached to a film hasn’t inspired much confidence. His work has ranged from middling (The Hoax) to the saccharine (Dear John) and I worried that his latest film, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, would be both. Instead, it’s a peppy, quick-witted British comedy filled with great performances, clever dialogue, and the mature development of a romantic relationship. The film staggers a bit getting to the finish line, but it’s a fun trip most of the way.
Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is a high-priced consultant representing the interests of a wealthy and forward-thinking sheikh (Amr Waked). His Excellency wishes the bring Salmon fishing to Yemen so Mr. Chetwode-Talbot sends an e-mail to Dr. Fred Jones, a scientist working in the Fisheries department of the British government. Naturally (Ewan McGregor), he thinks the idea is preposterous and laughs off the endeavor. Unfortunately for Dr. Jones, the proposal comes across the desk of the Prime Minister’s hard-nosed Press Officer Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s keen for some kind of story promoting Anglo-Yemeni relations. Reluctantly roped into an errand he believes to be ludicrous, Jones eventually warms to the idea. At the same time, Harried and Fred begin to warm to each other even though they’re both in romantic relationships.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen doesn’t rush off to the Yemen. The first half of the film is spent watching the characters slowly build the project, their relationships, and set the comic tone. Even though the story has no problem being a little goofy, it always acts in a mature manner. Rather than send Harriet and Fred straight off to Yemen and make their relationship nothing more than “What happens in Yemen stays in Yemen,” we get to see their icy relationship gradually thaw. It also doesn’t make their partners out to be horrible shrews or provide any conscience-clearing “out”. Harriet’s boyfriend is in Afghanistan but she’s not just going to automatically jump in the sack with Fred. Fred’s unhappy in his marriage, but he doesn’t take that as the all-clear to bop Harriet. The movie takes its time and instead of rushing romance treats the audience to upbeat laughs instead.
Hallström’s smart direction matches the energy and zip of the script. His upbeat direction flows from the witty dialogue and its strong British sensibility. He’s also got great performances from his leading cast. McGregor does a brilliant job playing the stodgy and flustered scientist character we’ve seen before but he manages to make the role his own. Blunt gets to be charming and wry, but unfortunately the movie never does enough to develop her character and the story forces her character to resort to endless hand-wringing about her beau. Thomas’ role is painfully brief but she almost steals the movie as her character could have easily walked out of In the Loop. And Waked brings the film its gravitas and enough warmth so that the character doesn’t feel like he’s simply The Voice of Eastern Wisdom.
Where the film begins to run into trouble is when it has to slow down and finally bring the romantic relationship between Harrier and Fred to fruition. The development has been earned, their previous relationships have been dealt with in a mature manner, but then the story starts throwing in contrivances to keep the conflict going through the third act. I won’t spoil what the film does, but there are two separate developments, both are poorly played, and one is absolutely preposterous. It’s a shame to see such haphazard work in a script that’s smart enough to delve into the mechanics and spirit of a hobby as dull as fishing and make it absolutely fascinating.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does so much right for its first two-thirds that we’re able to accept its stumbling finish. For adults who feel like the only comedies they’re getting are raunchy R-rated flicks, Yemen is a nice change of pace. Thanks to Hallström, the cast, and the writing, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen finds its humor without being abrasive and its romance without being too sappy.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: