Despite its agreeably quirky title (taken from its source novel), a poster that seemingly wants to make you think of the magic of last year’s Midnight in Paris, an off-beat premise and a deliciously bitchy performance from Kristin Scott Thomas, the truth is that Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is at bottom a pretty basic romantic comedy of the comfort-food variety. I am given to understand that Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire) screenplay softens Paul Torday’s satirical novel into a harmless confection, but it’s a harmless confection whipped together by experts and built around the not-inconsiderable charm of Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt—and pretty hard not to warm up to. Except for Kristin Scott Thomas, the film is rarely all that funny, but it is immensely likable. Maybe I’m being overly generous because it has rescued the usually pleasant Hallström from that ill-advised Nicholas Sparks goo-fest Dear John (2010)—but Salmon Fishing is one of the few truly enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. And Kristin Scott Thomas’ sharp-tongued character keeps things from getting altogether too sweet.
The concept is that the absurdly wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked)—an avid fly fisherman—has taken it into his head to import salmon to Yemen. He has it in mind to create a salmon run, which in turn will provide irrigation and more farmable land for his people. Normally, such a plan would be of no interest to the British government, but Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas), press secretary to the prime minister, is in search of some positive news about the Middle East, and this might fit the bill. Scottish fishery expert Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) has already turned down the Sheikh’s assistant, Harriet (Blunt), when the idea was first put to him. Now, with Her Majesty’s government supporting it, he’s blackmailed into accepting what he considers an utterly unworkable, if not downright insane project.
Shorn of its complications involving Jones’ distant and cool wife (Brit TV actress Rachael Stirling), Harriet’s M.I.A. soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison, One Day) and some political intrigue, the bulk of the story really is about setting up this salmon run—with time given over to the inevitable romance between Fred and Harriet. Much of what makes it work comes down to its stars. In fact, I’m not sure that McGregor has been quite this purely likable since Moulin Rouge! (2001), though he’s certainly been in better movies than this. Rather typically because it is a Lasse Hallström picture, most everyone ends up with the fate they appear to deserve. It is believable? No, of course, it isn’t, but it never pretends to be anything other than a movie. Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, and brief language.