Casting About for a Good Story in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director Lasse Hallstrom was drawn to his new project “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” opening today, by the optimism and creativity it offered.

“It had a really weird title, a charming and wonderful story and wasn’t formulaic at all,” he told me when he called me from his native Sweden.

The, as he says, charming and wonderful story follows a Yemeni sheik who wants to spend his millions setting up a salmon run in his country. He wants to pursue his very Western hobby – fly fishing – but he also wants to introduce his people to the Zen of fishing and provide for irrigated farming to boot.

The man is a visionary. He will fish and the desert will bloom.

Harriet (Emily Blunt) works as an assistant to the sheik, awed by both his money and his optimism. In her down time, she dates a soldier destined for Afghanistan. In pursuit of the sheik’s grand goal, she contacts Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a dull man stuck in a boring marriage. He works for the government as a fisheries expert. As a man of science and reason, he promptly tells her the project has no hope of being remotely successful.

Governments, however, don’t always function on reason and science. Once the project draws the attention of the press secretary to the Prime Minister (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a fantastic little role), all caution is thrown to the wind in the hopes of a feel-good Anglo-Yemeni story.

Those salmon will run, by God, or everyone will die trying.

Hallstrom liked the story because “we all want to believe that the impossible might be able to happen.” A regular fisher of perch in his youth, Hallstrom uses the concept of fish as a metaphor for an elaborate, irrational, and beautiful dream. They remind us to “break out of our shell and break out of routine and go against the stream.”

The film starts delightfully, thoroughly charming, mainly due to the effortless acting of Blunt and McGregor. One could watch them in a dramatization about folding laundry or a reenactment of the phone book and still have a good time.

The tone of the film is just whimsical enough to match the actor’s charm. Salmon? In the Yemen? It’s refreshing to see something other than intolerance, anger, and death from the Middle East. This was part of what drew Hallstrom “It’s a utopian dream. One people. One world. No wars. One happy family, East and West getting along.”

All through the power of fish.

The film starts to lose its quirky and delightful feel, however, when storylines begin to add up in contrived ways, as when a fishing cast comes at the perfect time to save the day. A developing romance between Harriet and Alfred leaves his poor wife out in the cold, a problem that is not satisfyingly resolved. The soldier Harriet dates becomes another impediment to their love, one in which duty and emotion are at odds. All that, and a sinister Muslim sect objects to the fishing idea.

In the end, the film falls beneath the weight of its aspirations, done in by the epic storylines that are introduced to add emotion and conflict.

If they’d just stuck to the tilting at windmills story of salmon fishing in the desert of the Yemen, they might have had something magnificent. But they had to add love, terrorism, heroism, and a host of other isms to a perfectly good fish story.

I guess that makes this movie the big fish that got away.