Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström has no equal when it comes down to laying massive amounts of cheese and sugar over thousands of feet of celluloid. His movies oftentimes are deliberately manipulative and overtly sentimental (“Chocolat,” “Dear John”), aspiring to be as inspirational as a self-help book. And sometimes, Hallström can churn out a true crowd-pleaser that you cannot help but admire, even when it’s flawed. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a perfectly good example: it knows how and when to push the right buttons. As entertainment, it is as ethereal as cotton candy. You smile, you cry, you nod your head at its feel-good message but, within days, maybe even hours, you realize it left no trace in your subconscious. At least you won’t be scarred for life by a Lasse Hallström film.
Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same title, the movie is primarily about Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed’s (Amr Waked) desire to introduce salmon fishing to Yemen’s arid Wadi Aleyn desert. As the film opens, the sheikh’s British consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), approaches fisheries scientist Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor) via e-mail to pick his brains about the project and hopefully recruit him. Fred shrugs her off with a politely sarcastic response. But, alas, the war in Afghanistan heats up and the British government finds itself in need of a good story to show the world that they and the Middle East are still on good terms. That’s when Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the Prime Minister’s spokesperson and a woman who, in her take-no-hostages demeanor, could be a close relative of Morgan Tucker, the foul-mouthed government enforcer from the BBC series “The Thick of It” and movie spinoff “In the Loop,” enters the picture.
She sees PR gold in the Yemeni project and moves hell and high water to make sure it is completed. Fred is given no choice but to become head of the project and soon discovers that every wish, no matter how preposterous, is at his command. One of these wishes soon finds the British government banging its head against the wall as the country’s fishing industry begins a nasty media campaign against the government’s request to transfer 10,000 Atlantic salmon to Yemen.
But if you think this is a no holds barred political satire in the style of “In the Loop,” then you don’t know Lasse Hallström at all. For at the core of this movie, at least for Hallström and scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, is Fred and Harriet’s meet cute romance and obligatory “yes you can” feel good message. What begins as an antagonistic relationship between opposites will, maybe, end on a happier note. But first, our lovebirds must overcome certain obstacles. Fred, who suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, is unhappily married to a careerist politician. And Harriet’s boyfriend is M.I.A. in Afghanistan. Add to this, a religious faction determined to sabotage the project and a last minute media stunt orchestrated by Patricia.
Hallström and Beaufoy strike a delicate but, in the end, unsuccessful balance between both story strands. The first hour is by far the strongest: here the satirical elements triumphantly impose themselves on the romantic ones, especially whenever Scott-Thomas is on-screen. Her over the top, bulldog-like performance hints at the film that could have been if a more politically astute scriptwriter and director had gotten his or her hands on the script. Even McGregor is game as his character tries to maintain a straight face while enjoying the outrageous power play around him.
But once our soon-to-be lovebirds arrive in Yemen, Hallström finds himself in more comfortable, sappy ground as Fred and Harriet predictably find their own self-fulfilling path, guided by the zen-like sheikh (this movie could have easily been retitled “Zen and the Art of Salmon Fishing in Yemen”). And while not as strong as the first act, McGregor’s and Blunt’s chemistry make the proceedings that more palatable. I just hope someone, somewhere, somehow, enroll Hallström in a self-help and/or motivational detox program.