Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the sort of – pardon the pun – “baity” title which sounds so self-consciously affected that it could quite easily sour expectations before the film even begins. Nevertheless, get past the daft title – which is uttered innumerable times throughout – and you get a surprisingly charming, if undeniably uneven dramedy which glides on the immaculate chemistry between its leads.
The yearnings of a powerful Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) to fish for salmon at will is certainly an odd premise in which to situate a politico-romantic comic drama, yet it is a mix that, in spite of its flaws, actually works. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is a representative of the sheik, looking to source salmon and expertise from British scientist Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who quickly dismisses the idea as absurd. With some not-so-gentle nudging – and financial remuneration – from the PM’s press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), Jones decides to collaborate on the project. Doing so not only appeases the sheikh, but serves the PM’s political agenda and aids an undeniable romantic bond between Fred and Harriet.
While this premise is unerringly obtuse, its strangeness does eventually end up contributing to the film’s success; that the mere frivolity of a man with too much money ends up sparking international interest is totally part of the joke. Better than any of the romantic elements, Scott Thomas steals several scenes as the unscrupulous press secretary, utterly ruthless and keen to milk the salmon fiasco for Queen and country.
That said, Emily Blunt again proves a worthwhile asset to a film’s relationship dynamic; just like her strong work with Matt Damon in the otherwise underwhelming The Adjustment Bureau, she is an emotional, dramatic and comedic buoy, thoroughly charming and completely appealing. McGregor is cast well as her lead; a wet-behind-the-ears, foppish but noble type, whose crumbling marriage sits in the wings just as Harriet’s own relationship becomes inexorably more difficult.
Indeed, while the various personal foibles of the characters come off as a little generic and forced, it is the witty, cutesy script and fine performances which ultimately make it work. It is a British concoction through and through: pithy, quirky, and not without its dry moments. Perhaps its worst offence is an inconsistency of tone; while the focus is usually on daft gags and wordplay, there is an occasional tendency towards scarcely appropriate scenes of destruction, especially near the end. Saboteur bombings and gunfights feel a little skittish and off-kilter juxtaposed with its comic and romantic stylings. The film is not sophisticated enough to juggle these elements in any sort of noirish or subversive manner, and as such together they feel a little incongruent.
There is one moment near the end of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen in which it appears to arrive at a pragmatic, perfectly realistic ending, albeit one which wouldn’t bring the masses to cinema seats. This is eschewed in favour of the path of least resistance (and greatest predictability). Thankfully, Blunt and McGregor shoot it through with just enough enthusiasm that most viewers are likely to stand it (though perhaps only just).
A bizarre and original comedy which offsets its narrative flaws with prevailing chemistry between Blunt and McGregor.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is in cinemas now.