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Lasse Hallstrom directed one of my favorite films, 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, as well as solid follow-ups The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. He’s no stranger to taking on material from a beloved book, either, in 2010 adapting Nicholas Sparks’ novel Dear John and now Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
I’m going to go on the record, as unpopular as it may make me, in saying that I enjoyed Dear John. Hallstrom wrenched a moving, memorable performance from Richard Jenkins, and coached palpable chemistry out of Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. Ho-hum story aside, he showcased what he proved with Gilbert Grape — that he knows how to make actors emote.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is similar to Dear John, as far as generic plot points go, but I’m sad to say it has even less impact. For one, the story is tougher to swallow than fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones’ (Ewan McGregor) patented fly hook. The impossibly wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) instructs his Britain-based consultant Harriet (Emily Blunt) to spearhead an effort to introduce his beloved sport of salmon fishing to his countrymen. Jones finds the idea ridiculous, but once the news story catches on with the Prime Minister’s press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s searching for a meaty “good will” story, he’s forced to join the project.
The yarn falters from the get-go with the Sheikh’s spotty vision; we’re at first confused as to his motives (he has a manor in the U.K. set aside for his fishing pleasures, after all), and he spews impossibly hokey wisdom about faith and the refreshing lack of politics involved in the sport. Only once the project is truly under way does he begin crafting his goodwill motives about irrigating the desert and using the salmon fishing angle to enrich the lives of those in Yemen. By then it’s a bit too late — it’s much easier to take Jones’ side regarding the £50 million endeavor (and there’s a tiring subplot involving naysayers in the sheik’s country hell bent on keeping him from bringing Western ideals to their land – the film dabbles in the political without ever truly hashing out a message).
This isn’t even the beginning of the story — the project mainly serves to bring together Alfred and Harriet, both of whom are attached, Harriet to Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), and Alfred to his wife Mary (Rachael Stirling). After Robert and Harriet share a hot-and-heavy three weeks together, he is swiftly shipped off to the desert, setting into motion another terribly contrived string of events. Conversely, Alfred and Mary have a loveless marriage and spend much of their time traveling separately.
So you know where this is going: Harriet’s sweet, coquettish ways and Alfred’s buttoned-up demeanor clash and ultimately converge. If the entire movie were solely about these two, it’d be a vast improvement; McGregor and Blunt solidify the fact that they’re two of the best actors working today. The scenes they share crackle with humor and wit, their characters fleshed out and easy to empathize with. But sadly, despite their best efforts, the two can’t carry us through the rest of the yarn. By the end of the second act, the film takes a swan dive from well-paced fun to wading in the murky waters of formulaic drama.
Perhaps most indicative of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s slowly deflating narrative is Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance. She’s excellent as the devoted, tough-as-nails press secretary (in one scene where she nonchalantly diffuses a sex scandal over the phone while getting her children ready for school), but by the end she’s relegated to being nothing more than a cigarette-smoking, order-barking, eye-rolling brat.
Hallstrom uses numerous techniques to counteract the subdued pacing, including split screens and an almost omnipresent undercurrent of peppy music. Effective enough as they are, they don’t make up for the fact that the movie is simply too long, with the momentum built in the first act impossible to maintain. A running gag utilizing an instant-message conversation between Patricia and the Prime Minister is a pretty good indication of how things go downhill in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: The first time, it garners big laughs. The second time, it reads as unnecessarily reiterative while being acceptably funny. The third time, crickets.
Even a stellar cast and solid performances can’t quite keep the film swimming upstream. Sadly, if you find yourself going Salmon Fishing in the Yemen you may discover that the catch you reel in is only half-alive.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen opens today nationwide.