Enjoying a film like "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" is similar to acquiring a taste for actual fishing. Like the sport that some find invigorating while others find it dreadfully dull, this film has its draggy moments. However, there are also enlightening points to the movie that come when you least expect them.
Of course, that is not to say that you have to actually LIKE fishing, or understand it, to enjoy "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen". Fishing serves as a crucial plot point, but you don't have to be a card-carrying member of Cabella's or L.L. Bean to enjoy it.
The film has elements of romantic comedy, environmentalism, foreign relations drama, and insightfulness that makes it difficult to concretely categorize. Fortunately, all these facets combine to create a story that's far from predictable. Just like a current, there are times you don't know where the story is going.
Ewan McGregor plays Fred Jones, a fisheries expert for the British government who receives an odd request from legal representative Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). Harriet represents a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who resides in both Great Britain and Yemen, and has an unusual fondness for salmon fishing. He wants to take a healthy population of salmon from the British lakes, and transport them to the Yemen River to live and breed.
The reason this plot does not make for good cocktail party small talk or water cooler chatter is because it takes such a long time to describe the rationale behind such an ambitious task. For instance, can salmon, who thrive in cold water, even survive in the Middle East, where it's obviously hot? Plus, why would people from Yemen even be interested in fishing? The film answers these questions and others very well, and allows the story to breathe better as each subplot reveals itself. Nothing is rushed in this movie, which, while a few parts drag here and there, is overall a welcome departure from certain high-octane multiplex drivel that passes as entertainment.
Once you actually listen to the characters and hear their reasoning, a lot of the story makes sense. This fact is especially true for Amr Waked, who is not yet a well known actor, but whose character has a profound impact on the film.
Western audiences are not used to seeing a Middle Eastern character that is not a terrorist, let alone one who credibly connects fishing and faith better than any PBS show even could. Waked, who is Egyptian in real life but whose character is Yemeni, does so incredibly well, and is truly the breakout star of this movie. It's a shame that Oscar season just ended, because the early release of this film alone hurts his chances of receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination, although he deserves it.
The inevitable love story in the movie is also unpredictable, if only because you're not sure whether McGregor and Blunt should be together. McGregor's Fred is married, and Blunt's Harriet has a boyfriend who is sent off to fight in the Afghanistan War. There are plot twists for both characters, but even you, the audience, remains unsure whether the two characters working together so well to bring salmon to Yemen means they should be together. It creates a necessary tension few romantic comedies dare to address.
As for their performances, McGregor seems to play a more mature leading role than in other films he's made before. His character here is more practical than idealist (as in "Moulin Rouge" (2001)), more professional than playboy (as in "Down With Love" (2003)), and knows where his morals lie (unlike "Trainspotting" (1996)). While he was good in those other films, he can only play those roles for so long.
Emily Blunt also delivered a balanced, multi-layered performance, and worked very well off McGregor. I thought there would be an explanation for why her character's last name was hyphenated, as you almost never see characters with two last names in movies. Could there have been a failed marriage in her past, perhaps? It wasn't ever explained, nor was it really crucial to the plot.
Kristin Scott Thomas also provides some unexpected comic relief as a press secretary for Parliament who chats with the British Prime Minister on Instant Messenger. Her character spearheads the campaign to transport the salmon to Yemen in order to divert public attention from the Afghanistan War. Again, a crucial subplot, but one that has to be seen, not explained second hand.
"Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" is enjoyable like some find fishing to be: there's a lot of calm to it, but when the funny parts happen, they can be as surprising and as fulfilling as catching a big fish. Also, if you actually listen to Amr Waked's character the same way some expert fisherman have pearls of wisdom, the movie's enjoyment may even come as a bigger surprise.