The focal point of Salmon Fishing in Yemen is getting salmon to Yemen for fishing.
Salmon -- as you know -- are not native to Yemen. Or anywhere in the Middle East. But a sheik wants to bring prosperity to his little country south of Saudi Arabia and right next door to Oman.
The country is real. The story — however — is not.
The sheik owns a castle in Scotland. That’s where he fell in love with salmon fishing and where he got his idea. He wants better lives for his people and has dreams of building a dam to bring water and jobs to his not-to-much-a-paradise desert. If you’re going to do a dam, and all that, why not stock it with salmon?
Damn good idea.
But Salmon Fishing in Yemen isn’t totally about salmon. It’s a love story. And a pretty good one.
Ewan McGregor plays a fish expert. And before we get started, this is the first time in recent memory that McGregor plays a Scotsman and his dialogue is in his native tongue. His character — Dr. Fred Jones — is unhappily married and on some level, also unhappily married to his job.
Then Dr. Jones gets an email from Emily Blunt’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. It’s about the salmon and the dam and all. Busy bureaucrat that he is, Dr. Jones damned well turns down the dam and cans the salmon. He would have stood his ground, too, except for political pressure from the information guru of Britain’s prime minister.
Bad press for the Brits over a faux pas in the Middle East demands a positive story as a counter. The info guru is played well, and quite wickedly, by the always excellent Kristin Scott-Thomas. She uses her power, pressure and financial persuasion to get her way.
Back to the love story. Blunt’s Harriet is in love with a soldier who is missing in action. She misses him, but you can see the sexual tension building between Dr. Jones and Harriet. Political opponents fear Western influence in Yemen, but the sheik perseveres. And then there’s the fish.
That’s a love story of sorts, too.
McGregor, Blunt and the chemistry between them is pitch-perfect from the first scene. Their interaction and the connection to Amr Waked’s (Syriana) sheik drive the movie. Love blossoms slowly, perfectly. McGregor and Blunt swap lines in an easy, real-life manner with respect and humor.
By the way, Waked, like his co-stars, is also terrific.
When he gets it right -- or has the right screenwriter -- director Lasse Hallstrom is a very good storyteller. Cider House Rules and An Unfinished Life prove that. And in my book, Salmon Fishing in Yemen allows us to forgive him for Dear John and Chocolat.
Simon Beaufoy of Slumdog Millionaire fame pens the story from Paul Torday’s novel. Like Hallstrom, when he gets it right -- and he usually does -- Beaufoy tells a great story, too.
While it is a Middle East movie, and I agree building dams and having westerners bring salmon to the land could create a clash of cultures, it is nice to see a film about the area that doesn’t involve international intrigue, a focus on terrorism, language and violence.
Unfortunately, neither Hallstrom or Beaufoy have anywhere to take the story other than to a cliche crisis. The clash of culture at the climax -- in the end -- breaks the proverbial feel-good dam and manages to wash away what could have been one of 2012’s best.
But love prevails over cliche. Love. Respect. Dignity. Deep, likable, multiple-dimensioned characters with real-life problems work. It is the love story that hooks you and keeps you hooked. The storytelling skills of Hallstrom and Beaufoy let the chemistry of McGregor and Blunt reel you in.
Mr. Movie rating: 4 stars
Rated PG-13 for mature themes. It is playing at Regal’s Columbia Center 8.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.