Some movies qualify as specialty releases because their subject material is controversial; others, because they’re stylistically far outside the mainstream. Occasionally, though, it’s because their subject material is so minor or quirky that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly draw any sort of significant audience. That is the group that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the new film from umlauted Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, belongs to.
Really, the title tells you everything that you need to know about the movie: a wealthy-beyond-wealth Yemeni sheik wants to ‘introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen,’ and he enlists the help of one of his money managers (Emily Blunt) and a Scottish official in the UK government’s fish and game department (Ewan McGregor) to make it happen. Powering the project forward is Britain’s Press Minister (Kirsten Scott Thomas), whose knack for smelling out stories beneficial to her government is matched only by her disdain for her coworkers. Naturally, there’s a personality clash between McGregor’s Freddie, who initially views the whole thing as an insult to the great salmon population of the British Isles, and Blunt’s Harriet, a London yuppie who just wants the sheik to get what he wants, and also naturally, their feelings deepen beyond what they’d expected.
There’s some heavy stuff mixed in – apparently the sheik’s love for salmon fishing isn’t appreciated by some in his homeland, who view him as becoming too Western – and all that comes off as the effort to make the subject material more broad and relevant. Frankly, though, Salmon Fishing is at its strongest when it acknowledges how thoroughly silly it is, and when it remembers that the only thing that makes an audience care, really, is how it feels about the characters, and by extension how the characters feel about their situation.
I don’t mean to suggest that the movie would be better if it stayed more permanently and comfortably within Scott Thomas’s wisecracking wheelhouse. Rather, it’s far more interesting to watch McGregor’s Freddie discovering that he cares about a project that he initially dismissed than to watch nameless beturbaned villains plotting against the sheik for being too Western. Similarly, the simple progression of the love story between Freddie and Blunt’s Harriet is far more engaging, and far more human, than the hackneyed dilemma that Harriet is presented with at the end of the film.
All of which is to say: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charming, thoroughly minor, piece of work. There’s nothing wrong with that: just such a film just won the biggest prize in cinema at the Oscars, after all. It does mean, however, that it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it.
But then, surely not every movie needs to be a conversation starter, so long as manages to entertain; and, through its clever jokes, its attractive characters, and, yes, even through its occasional absurdities, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does at least manage that.