Film Reviews

Amr Waked, Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt turn this whimsical caper into a hit.

Swimming Upstream

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is charming, funny and smart

The comedies of director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, My Life as a Dog come to mind) are like no one else’s: deft, “humanistic,” character-driven and funnier as they go along. They often begin gently, with here and there a few chuckles, and then rope audiences in, ending up far more eccentric than they first appear. When these movies are well-cast, as is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, with superior dialogue delivered adroitly, as here by Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas, they work wonderfully well.

They are–look out now–civilized in the best sense of the word, smart people up to the necks in complicated situations.

With an expert screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Hallström’s usual impeccable direction and a strong supporting cast, the movie moves along at a medium pace to deliver its romantic-comedy goods, wrapped in a package of social satire nuanced rather than broad.

As with most of Hallström’s movies, comedies or not (see the English-language version of Hachi, for example), audiences can take home more than the usual instantly disposable rom-com. His films stay with you for a while, so steeped are they in an awareness of human nature, good and ill.

Here’s the deal: It’s a bad news day for Middle East affairs, and the media spinners need some good news to plant to offset the war-oriented dispatches. One of those spinners (Scott Thomas) finds an intriguing item, the kind usually regarded as nut news. A Yemeni Sheik (Amr Waked, in a terrific performance) is a salmon-fishing freak, and he wishes help in creating an environment … in Yemen. According to the Sheik, this will symbolize harmony between the Middle East and the West.

Our spinner, sniffing what she thinks could be a good diversionary human-interest feature, begins to investigate and eventually embeds herself. And so we see the project haltingly, stumblingly come to life–hirelings procured and money allotted. In the world’s usual manner, manufactured good news trumps bad news, and draws plenty of attention.

Enter two characters fated for more than a fishing project: A repressed British fishing expert (McGregor, spot-perfect) and a PR maven (Blunt) for the Sheik. Together they must work together (reluctantly) and hash out the details–like how to import 10,000 Atlantic salmon to Yemen for starters.

Original in plot, fresh in its approach to romantic comedy, deft in its awareness of the real world, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen goes its own way, as the two (one unhappily married, the other with a boyfriend just shipped to Afghanistan) try to loosen up intelligently in the face of their cockeyed assignments. Is it predictable? Not as much as a synopsis makes it sound. Is it funny? Yes. Is it foul-mouthed? Nyet. Is it probable? No, except in Dubai. Is it possible? Let’s hope so.

This charmer is a rare movie, one of those which miraculously come along, usually bereft of a publicity budget, every once in a while. It’s a funny movie for grown-ups with a little mileage under their belts. It’s clever and refreshing. See it, already.

Just Deserts DVDs

Cinema has loved the Sahara ever since Rudolph Valentino swooned in a Hollywood sandbox. Besides his The Sheik and the inescapable Lawrence of Arabia, top picks include The English Patient, the original (Humphrey Bogart) Sahara, The Wind and The Lion, Walkabout and the original The Flight of the Phoenix.