Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a metaphor for dreaming big, and like most metaphors, it doesn’t always make for a seamless moviegoing experience. But at least director Lasse Hallström (Dear John, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) shores up his film with a terrific cast that can often make up for the parts that sag under the uneven weight of preciousness.
Based on the novel by Paul Torday, the movie follows the attempts of a fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) and a consultant (Emily Blunt) to realize the dream of a sheik (Amr Waked) to bring the sport of salmon fishing to the desert. Not unreasonably, the plan sounds crazy to Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor), a mild-mannered government employee who plods along uncomplaining in his dull life and duller marriage. The problems are insurmountable, he tells Harriet (Blunt), who’s working for the sheik, when she asks about feasibility. There’s no water in the desert, for heaven’s sake, and even if there were, where would they get the thousands of salmon they needed to start a population? The British fishing industry would not take kindly to the salmon they hope to catch being shipped off to a Muslim country, and there’s no guarantee the fish would survive the trip anyway.
But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a movie about faith, and faith is something that Sheikh Muhammed has by the bucketloads (perhaps too much, as he doesn’t seem to understand to what lengths some of his fundamentalist brethren will go to to thwart his plan). He’s also got the backing of the British government, which desperately needs a feel-good story about Muslims in light of current events and so dispatches press secretary from hell Patricia Maxwell (a screamingly funny Kristin Scott Thomas) to make sure the project happens.
The film also sidetracks into the personal lives of Alfred and Harriet, who are clearly going to fall in love despite his wife and her soldier boyfriend. The wife gets particularly short shrift here; she’s dismissed handily because she has the nerve to have her own job that takes her away from Alfred and his fish. A business trip to Geneva is played as a betrayal; why Alfred’s work is more important — he deals with fish, not nuclear secrets — remains a mystery only screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) can answer.
The film’s tone is pleasantly comic, at least until Scott Thomas, the best thing the film has to offer, comes screaming and swearing onto the screen. Her incendiary presence ignites Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and makes you realize the movie’s gentle rhythm has lulled you into a passive state in which twee seems logical and pronouncements on faith from a visionary billionaire seem impressive. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not a bad movie — everybody wants dreams to come true — but its platitudes sound awfully hollow sometimes.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked.
Director: Lasse Hallstrom.
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy. Based on the novel by Paul Torday.
Producer: Paul Webster.
A CBS Films release. Running time: 107 minutes. Some violence and sexual content, language. Playing at area theaters