Is there a director working today who’s a greater shapeshifter than Lasse Hallström? When you buy a ticket to a movie made by, say, Quentin Tarantino, Tyler Perry, Wes Anderson or Michael Bay, you pretty much know for better or worse what to expect. The accomplished Swedish filmmaker, on the other hand, can’t really be said to have a signature style. He just has style.
He’s brought it to projects as diverse in theme, look and tone as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Casanova, The Hoax and Chocolat. It saturates every frame of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a picture in perhaps the most improbable of genres-the Middle East-based romantic comedy.
The idea is there’s this billionaire sheik who’s crazy about fly fishing. He’s played by the charismatic Egyptian actor Amr Waked. In his travels, the sheik has fallen in love with the sport and sees no reason why citizens of his war-torn country shouldn’t have an opportunity to get in on the fun.
Ewan McGregor sees plenty of reasons. He stars as a tweedy fisheries expert named Alfred Jones. Emily Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the sheik’s London rep. When she attempts to enlist Alfred’s help in bringing fly fishing to the desert, she’s met with more than resistance; she’s met with outright mockery. It’s the desert. Duh.
One of the clever things Hallström and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) do here is chip away, fact by surprising fact, at McGregor’s-and the viewer’s-assumptions. The Yemini climate turns out to be more accommodating than the scientist realized, comparable to parts of California where salmon thrive. We learn that work has already begun on a cutting edge dam capable of transforming a river in the middle of a wasteland into a series of waterways simulating the species’ natural habitat. Given that money’s no object, McGregor’s character comes to embrace the quixotic project as a not-so-impossible dream. All they need is 10,000 fish and a way to get them from England to the Arabian peninsula.
That’s where the British government comes in. The script is adapted from Paul Torday’s 2007 novel of the same name, a political satire that was a hit in the U.K. When a British-led operation in Afghanistan goes terribly wrong and threatens to become a PR nightmare (can you say “ripped from the headlines?”), the Prime Minister’s press secretary makes it her mission to divert the world’s attention with a heart warming headline. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the hard charging Patricia Maxwell. She gets wind of the salmon plan and seizes upon it as a symbol of improved Anglo-Arab relations. Because she wants her photo op, she wants the sheik to get his fish.
But will the boy get the girl? And, more importantly, will we care? McGregor and Blunt are winning as the mismatched pair with more than a few obstacles between them and true love. He’s in a rut of a marriage and she’s dating a soldier who’s MIA. Such things have been known to work themselves out in 111 minutes however and, of course, further questions remain: Will the salmon adapt to their new home or wind up dead in the water? And will mistrustful insurgents get to the sheik before he can realize his vision?
Fortunately for anybody eager for a big screen break from vampires, superheroes and anything involving found footage, Hallström has realized his. Which, in this case, was to make one like they used to. This is an endearingly old school exercise refreshingly devoid of angst or irony. The mood’s a playful combination of the comic and the whimsical, the camerawork is spectacular, the dialogue effortlessly fine and there isn’t a performance that’s less than a pleasure to watch. The latest addition to one of the cinema’s most offbeat bodies of work, it’s a fish out of water story I strongly recommend you catch.