Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Directed by Lasse Hallström.
2011. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.
Kristin Scott Thomas
Amr Waked
Tom Mison
Rachael Stirling
Catherine Steadman
Tom Beard
Jill Baker

Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) is an avid fisherman and called a visionary by Harriet (Blunt) who handles his affairs in Britain. She’s been tasked with helping him introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen. This is problematic because there are no salmon native to the region and the region doesn't seem conducive to salmon. For help, she contacts expert Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor). He assesses the situation and tells her to go suck an egg, more or less. However, he’s coerced into helping her by his superiors, themselves under pressure from Patricia Maxwell (Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary. She’s desperately trying to find something to show that British-Yemeni/Islamic relations are improving and this seems to be the most viable option. To make it work, Dr. Jones and Harriet will have to work closely together on repeated business trips to the Yemen where they’ll stay at the Sheikh’s palace as the only two guests. In case you weren't sure where this is going, the doctor’s marriage is on the rocks and Harriet’s boyfriend, a soldier who is sent to Afghanistan (“or somewhere”) goes missing-in-action. Cue romance.

The most striking thing about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is its visuals. It’s no special fx extravaganza, but the area where the Sheikh does his fishing is beautiful. We get to see it from a number of angles, when it’s quiet and when water is raging through its alleys. Unfortunately, there’s an entire movie between those shots that isn't nearly as riveting. It moseys along without any real sizzle until it tries to inject some late. Before then, McGregor fawns over Blunt because his wife only cares that he keeps his job so the mortgage will continue being paid. By the way, she’s got a high-paying jet-setting job herself. Meanwhile, Blunt goes from being charming to blubbering incessantly about her presumed dead boyfriend. Both performers turn in solid work, but things never get to the point where it makes us tell ourselves that we just have to see how this is going to turn out.

Two characters break up the monotony, but only one does it in a good way. Our sheikh is burdened with giving the movie depth. Sadly, he strains to do so before ultimately failing. He plans on using the whole fishing thing as a grand metaphor. We get it. It’s nothing to spend a lifetime pondering, but it’s okay on its own. What undermines it is the steady stream of Yoda-isms he drops in conversations. He sounds like a walking talking fortune cookie. On the other hand, Kristin Scott Thomas is of greater effect as the relentless brash press secretary. She’s funny and lively. The movie instantly gets better when she’s on the screen.

Eventually, Dr. Jones and Harriet’s relationship goes through some typical rom-com contrivances we see coming from miles away and the local, unapologetically Muslim contingent provides some opposition to the sheikh. The issue with the former is predictability. To be fair, suddenly going in an unexpected direction probably wouldn't work for this movie so we can let this slide. More problematic is the latter. Despite all the lip-service paid to working on Britain’s relationship with Islamics, it comes across as hypocritical. It’s because “the other,” Muslims in this case, are painted as savages. The one who embraces our (western) ideals, the Sheikh, is automatically assumed to be better than the rest. In short, none of the other Muslims in the film are actually people, they’re just perpetually agitated agitators. They show up, grumble about what’s going on, make threats (or make good on them), and disappear.

That said, many of the movie’s problems would be forgivable, or at least less noticeable, in a better movie. As currently constructed, we’re never really enthralled with what’s going on. Worse yet, we’re often bored by it. The actors do what they can, but are hamstrung by the material. By the end, we've no choice but to nit-pick all the issues that pop up. Salmon Fishing is occasionally cute, even funny when Kristin Scott Thomas is running her mouth. However, it falls apart because we turn to scrutiny in lieu of the romantic thrills it can’t give us.

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