- Vancouver, British Columbia - Often films have rather simplistic two word or single word titles, but once in awhile, a title comes so out of the blue, it brings with it a sense of intrigue. This is very much the case for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Being from Canada, I'm more than familiar with how well suited salmon are to Canadian climate, thus the idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen seems ludicrous. Honestly, I have very little interest in fishing in large part because I'm terrible at it and tend to catch sea cucumbers and whatever else people have dumped into the ocean (read: I don't catch much organic life), but beginning with a promising cast of Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen gave me reason to believe that there may be something worth examining in this film.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the story of two individuals, who meet in a rather bizarre business venture proposition by a rich oil sheikh from the Yemen. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is a fisheries expert, working for the British Department of Fisheries and Agriculture. He pursues a seemingly dull life of working in an office, while he waits to, one day in the distance, future collect a civil pension for he and his wife, Ashley (Catherine Steadman). Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) works for a consulting firm, who acts on behalf of the Yemeni oil sheikh (Amr Waked), who has a passion for fishing. He is interested in determining the feasibility of bringing salmon to the Yemen, or at least this is what we're told at first. Alfred balks at the idea of it, but he comes around with a little internal pressure from the Prime Minister's Office, led by his Communications Officer, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is seeking a goodwill story in the field of Arab-English relations.
This is a curiously bizarre scenario, but it is captivating simply because it seems so absurd. However, elements of this film falter once one gets beyond the initial odd set-up. It is original in the sense that I've never seen a film concerned with the same issues as this film, but sadly, there is an utter lack of tension. It is somewhat predictable, despite being unfamiliar. Plot twists often feel thrown together as if a part of a patchwork to make the plot worth watching, but by the end of the film, I was no longer able to suspend my disbelief, leading me to see all of the potential puns possible with this film. I will try to spare you from them, however.
The characters themselves were not entirely likeable, as by the end of the film, I found myself not particularly caring for any of the individuals involved. Worse, it felt like I had to judge who I disliked the least to decide in whom to invest myself. I still hadn't made up my mind when the final credits came. Alfred Jones is alleged to have no sense of humour, he is in an unhappy marriage, and lacks an interesting personality, yet we're supposed to cheer him on, presumably because we feel sorry for the sad fellow who likes fishing. I know many people who love fishing and they don't look so pathetic as this individual. Harriet, if I'm honest, was probably the one who I disliked the least (I realize this only now as I write this review), but there is not much going on for her. She gets work done and brings people together in her role in the consulting firm, but we're expected to connect with the romance that she shares with a British army boy, but it all felt a little rushed and shallow. The romance between Alfred and his wife is entirely depressing, which is yet another portrayal of middle-aged romance and sex as being lifeless and unsatisfying. I get it, this is the case for some middle-aged couples, but if we judged the world by our films, we'd be led to believe that there is no such thing as a happy middle-aged couple. We see young love glorified, while sometimes the love shared between an elderly couple is viewed as redeeming, but not middle-aged romance. It is boring and forgettable. There is a gap between young love and senior love that is an absolute doldrum.
The character of the Yemeni sheikh, Muhammed, felt like in its writing that it tried so hard to not be stereotypical that it, in and of itself, became a stereotype. With characters from the Middle East, we're essentially presented two character prototypes with the most regularity: the violent terrorist whose sense of justice so blinds him from any attachment to humanity, or, the compassionate, loving and open-minded, keffiyeh-wearing Arab, who continually expounds upon how the West misunderstands the Middle East and mischaracterizes them all as violent, blood-thirsty hounds, yet he himself is peace-loving and overly moral. Muhammed falls into the latter character, but we're presented with more than a few of the opposite character prototype (read: terrorists), and when the two are side by side, it just reveals them both to be even more silly. We realize that neither appears to be very close to life, but more to the imaginings of a writer who has probably met very few people legitimately from the Middle East.
Furthermore, writing in the plot involving the Prime Minister's Office in this story just felt entirely unnecessary and sideshow-like. I can't for the life of me see why Kristin Scott Thomas would sign off on a role like this, as it is vapid and without merit. Her performance was one of her more lacking roles that I have seen in some time and her character just seemed inexplicably added to the general narrative for almost no justifiable reason. Honestly, Paul Torday wrote a book by the same name, which inspired this film, and I can't help but feel like he simply decided to tell a absurd story about fish with a rich oil sheikh wanting to bring fish to the Yemen, and then began to work at finding other elements that could make such a story palatable to a mainstream audience. He earns full merits for his work at thinking up all of these elements with which to tell a story, as I have no doubt that it required a significant effort. However, the parts as a whole lead to a story that doesn't justify itself, leading to an almost complete failure in execution. The romance angle felt contrived, made more complicated by a dull middle-aged marriage, mixed with a girl trying to stay faithful to her army boy in Afghanistan, and then further complicated needlessly by making the British government care about this venture for reasons that didn't feel justified. With all of this considered, it is more shocking that someone like Simon Beaufoy agreed to tackle this project, considering his previous success with 2008's Academy Award-winning, Slumdog Millionaire and 2010's 127 Hours. What did he see in this story that I didn't?
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was a film that did very little for me, though I can't say I expected a great deal from it. Because of that, I can't say that it was horrible, but neither can I really let it off by saying it was average. It is a film that doesn't justify its creation, leading to it feeling unnecessary and like a bit of a waste of time. It isn't the best work you'll see from Ewen McGregor and Emily Blunt, and especially not from Kristin Scott Thomas. If you have some other options for what to see this weekend, I suggest you look into those a little more before committing to this one.
Rating: 2/5 Sour Grapes