by Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Lasse Hallström’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” reminds me how much I enjoy the regaling of someone’s passions. In this case it’s a rich sheik’s love for salmon fishing and the similarly enthused ruminations of the Scottish piscatorial expert who joins him in a venture that makes for one whale of a fish tale, if you’ll pardon the reference.
My interest is a tad selfish, part vicarious, part vindicating. It matters little the passion. Sit me next to a numismatist on a bus, waxing ecstatic about the 1909 S VDB Lincoln penny he hopes to own one day, and I hear the sublime exhaust note of a 12 cylinder Ferrari making time on a country road, headed for the culinary delights at a quaint inn.
Ah, that’s living…the stuff that invigorates and gives definition to your being. Like when you were little and declared you were good guy, bad guy, Indian or cowboy, you have now happily settled upon and declared yourself devotee of this or that. No more wandering the desert for purpose, wondering who you are. Why, you are (fill in passion)!
Which brings us to the subject zeal of Yemen’s Sheikh Muhammed, smartly played by Amr Waked. Rich beyond our dreams, a knowing, quixotic look in his empathic eyes, on first blush we find his obsession a bit self-serving, if you ask. He wants to bring salmon fishing to Yemen. If it takes moving mountains and rivers to accomplish that, so be it.
Obviously, he’ll need some expert help if he thinks he can import a piece of nature that evolved in temperate regions to his hot and sandy climes. So meet Ewan McGregor’s Dr. Alfred Jones, the buttoned down scientist/fisherman whose knowledge of things fish earns him a regular paycheck from Her Majesty’s Government. He, too, has a calling.
Oh lucky man that he is, it’s his job. All of which fits rather neatly into his carefully compartmentalized life. This includes a perfunctory but stable, if not terribly romantic, marriage to perennially busy career woman, Mary (Rachael Jones). Up until now that’s kind of been OK, his avocational vocation fulfilling his apparently kind soul.
But then you know, as Mr. Hallström’s life affirming delve into the pursuit of happiness and meaning assures, there’s always a romantic angle to a story…a link to that other Passion… the one that earns a capital P. Naturally, that numismatist wants to share his penny with adoring eyes. And of course a rather interesting lady waits at that country inn.
Now, I’m not going to say how things eventually work out in this area, nor even mention there’s some derring-do here, too. Just suffice it to note that, entering stage left, employed by the British firm that handles matters for the sheikh, is winsome Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, sweetly evinced by Emily Blunt. She hooks the sheikh up with Dr. Jones.
We get a nice warm feeling when His Highness instantly recognizes our unpresuming naturalist, cites some of his published works and adds that he has used the Willy Jones, the storied fly lure he devised, for over a decade. All well and good. But candidly the good doctor can’t help but be opposed to the project, holding that it goes against nature.
That argument as a central theme of the film, intelligently extended beyond its mere application to the sheikh’s big dream, is regularly revisited with engaging, philosophical result. But Patricia Maxwell, the ambitious, no-nonsense press secretary to the Prime Minister, couldn’t care about any of that chatter. She adds her own poignancy to the tale.
Portrayed with snippy-snappy brass by Kristin Scott Thomas, she is facilitator, world-mover, pragmatist and a very droll satire on the cogs of government all rolled into one. You see, things aren’t going too swimmingly in the Middle East, and if The Crown could make nice-nice with the potentate, it just might go a long way to improving relations.
The exquisite blend of elements, the way Hallström mixes a symbiotic aura between the Earth-shattering and the commonplace with a dab of mysticism, recalls Bill Forsyth, the Scottish director who has yet to top his” Local Hero” (1983). Providing a similar front row seat to humanity’s quandary with nature, this easily could be mistaken for his work.
Regardless of whether or not all things are really possible, fine performances by the principals kick that notion around with persuasive and entertaining élan. It’s a grand metaphor, counterpoising the hard facts of life with the fantasies that sustain us. So my advice is reel-in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” or it might be the big one that got away.
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” rated PG-13, is a CBS Films release directed by Lasse Hallström and stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas. Running time: 107 minutes
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