So there’s this wealthy Sheikh whose passion in life is salmon fishing. A beautiful personal assistant. A fisheries expert who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. A whipsmart press officer for the British Prime Minister. The barren and remote conditions in Yemen. A soldier deployed to Afghanistan. A loveless marriage. The difficulties in attempting to build a thriving and successful salmon environment for 10,000 salmon to survive and spawn in a barren Yemeni valley. Witty and pithy Email exchanges between the press officer and British Prime Minister. Terrorism. Assassinations. A love triangle of sorts.
Welcome to Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, the latest romantic comedy/drama/political satire/political drama/war-torn/timely/environmentally-themed/rollicking good time adventure to hit your nearest multiplex.
And despite all of that overwrought and unwieldy confusion, I kinda liked Salmon Fishing In The Yemen just enough to give it the slightest of recommendations. Paced by winning and engaging performances by Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, the film is relatively harmless, despite a badly mismanaged third act which ties about three-quarters of that opening paragraph into one sloppy and unfathomable mess that doesn’t wipe off your brain very easily. And yet despite that terrible error, Blunt and McGregor are still there and falling in love. And frankly, they are just so good together, they somehow bring this thing home to a quasi-satisfying finish.
Let’s try and fill in some holes here. An incomprehensibly wealthy Sheikh (Amr Waked) employs his personal assistant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) to make his dreams and visions a reality in bringing his passion of salmon fishing to the remote and distant landscape of his home country. Initially, this is just another task for Harriet to tackle for her boss, so she sends a matter-of-fact Email to the head of Britain’s fisheries department, Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor). In turn, she receives a well-worded, but rather dismissive Email response, resulting in the Sheikh agreeing to bankroll the entire project, to the tune of approximately $50 MM.
The Prime Minister’s press officer, Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), always looking for an angle, finds the story irresistible and commands her team to get out in front of the event. Massaging the Prime Minister and his staff a bit, Maxwell convinces Parliament that the salmon fishing story would be a terrific, feel-good story and one which distracts from a recent deployment of British troops for another tour of Afghanistan. As Dr. Jones remains insistent in his belief that the whole endeavor is pointless, absurd, and completely untenable, his wife Mary (Rachel Stirling), unexpectedly takes a work assignment which requires her to be away for several weeks.
Now essentially separated from his wife and mired in a declining marriage, Dr. Jones dives in, trying to concoct a plan wherein cold-water salmon can sustain and spawn in the Middle East. He and Harriet become work partners, sparking the possibility of perhaps more between them. Complicating matters, however, is that Harriet has fallen head-over-heels for a new boyfriend of just three weeks, Robert (Tom Mison), who was not only just deployed to Afghanistan, but has also been reported as missing in action.
So…that explains this all wonderfully, right?
I completely acknowledge that Salmon Fishing In The Yemen has entirely way too much going on to be palatable from first bite to the last. I am quite sure that at least half of what is going here is not at all necessary, but then again…you cannot segregate out chunks of the story because then you don’t really have any semblance of a story left to tell. The film is what it is, and as goofy and nonsensical as all of this is, it remains quite watchable in all of its aimlessness.
Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor are wonderful in their roles, with Blunt completely likable and imperfect emotionally and McGregor resplendently witty and snarky. When McGregor constantly reminds co-workers, Blunt’s character, the Sheikh, and even members of Parliament how ridiculous this entire project is, he is easy to root for. Likewise, when he is forced to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole, or the salmon in the Yemen as it were, it is quite easy to cheer him on – largely knowing that he is winning the favor of Emily Blunt. Our increasing desire to see them end up together helps matter immensely.
Although a deeper analysis might prove him to be delusional and a bit childish in his wants and whims, I rather liked Amr Waked’s Sheikh Muhammed, who somehow sold me on a goofy “faith or fish” monologue that I guarantee would make me laugh out loud and utter profanities, were it presented in any other capacity. I can safely say that I was never in love with Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, but I was intrigued the entire time; McGregor, Blunt, Thomas, and Waked pushing me along scene by scene until I actually found myself smiling when the titular moment happens on screen.
And then all the other nonsense comes perilously close to killing off all the goodwill and willing suspension of disbelief viewers will have generously given to the story and the film. I completely understand the reaction in people who will get to the last half hour and shrug or throw up their hands in confusion and frustration. Believe me, I was there too. The problem is that, in hindsight, I had bought in to the whimsical nature of everything that came before it and my investment somehow steered me through a ridiculous conclusion to a film that almost succeeds in spite of itself.
For Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor’s work here, I recommend taking the journey. When they smile at one another in the end, consider it their acknowledgment that they recognize you made it through to the other side as well. Somehow, I can take comfort in believing that impossibility, almost as much as I inexplicably tolerated everything they threw at me along the way.