What with the recent misery in Gaza and Israel, it’s hard to wrap your mind around a feel-good story coming out of the Middle East, but here it is, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” opening at Japanese theaters over a year after its premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
The movie has three wonderful factors going for it: the reliable Lasse Hallstrom (“Cider House Rules,” “Dear John”) at the helm, the presence of the incredibly handsome Amr Waked playing an Arabian sheikh, and all the scenes featuring Kristin Scott Thomas. She’s renowned for her versatility and sheer willingness to play just about anyone, but here she’s hilarious as a press secretary concocting an Arabian “goodwill” story for the British government. Not only does she sport the most elegantly angled cheekbones in cinema, she’s one of the few actresses working today who can stride onto a scene and dominate it immediately with an aristocratic ambience. In a parallel world, surely she’s sitting on the British throne, being witheringly sarcastic or sparkling with wit and just enchanting the daylights out of the entire court.
In “Salmon Fishing,” Scott Thomas is Patricia Maxwell, press secretary to the British prime minister. She’s in dire need of a bit of cheery news that will liven things up between Britain and the Middle East. The suggestions that come across her desk are all duds (you know, fluff stories involving dancing girls in bikinis) but there’s one item with golden potential: Sheikh Muhammed of Yemen wants to introduce salmon to his desert land so he can go fishing.
He’ll need some serious consultation and several miracles of British engineering to make this happen. Patricia homes in on the story like a falcon spotting a rabbit and spares no effort to ensure that it gets maximum coverage.
Had this been a straightforward tale of peace, hope and friendship and stuff, it might have been more tightly structured. We would also have gotten to see more shots of salmon swimming in a desert dam (unforgettable, trust me). But this being a Lasse Hallstrom movie, a love story is dolloped on top like whipped cream when ichthyologist Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is called in to help the sheikh’s posh-named U.K. representative Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) with the strange request.
Not to say this is bad, but on occasion it feels like two movies almost but not quite merged into one: on one level, a nice couple taking a fantastic desert vacation together, and on another, a fisheries/engineering breakthrough unfolding before our very eyes.
Alfred is so wrapped up in his beloved piscine species (“When things get tricky in my life, I talk to my fish”) that initially he resents Harriet’s proposal to fly to Yemen, work with the sheikh and procure 10,000 salmon to swim in a dam — it defies nature. But the pair are destined to fall in love, even as screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) strews various difficulties along their path.
Alfred is married to the career-centric Mary (Rachael Stirling) and feeling stifled, while Harriet is engaged to a soldier who’s MIA in Afghanistan. Her enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and with Patricia pressuring from the sidelines, Alfred decides to give it a go, but it’s only once he’s in the desert and basking in the Middle Eastern sunshine that the fish expert thaws. That the sheikh is the most sincere and charismatic personage this side of the Sahara helps too, and pretty soon Alfred is dreaming of casting his fly into a warm dam and feel the pull of a cold, glittering salmon on his fishing rod.
In “Salmon Fishing,” everyone is charming — including Patricia, who sheds some of her pasty, work-addicted complexion. It’s a story that’s easy to like, but there’s still some rain drizzling down on the parade. The sheikh’s stupendous wealth ticks off some of the 99 percent in his country, prompting an attempt to bomb him and the dam. The dewy-eyed sheikh can’t understand why his people don’t want to join him in the wonderful, rewarding pastime of salmon fishing. Uh, could it be because they are struggling to feed their families?