Salmon Fishing in The Yemen
Directed by Lasse Hallestrom
Screenplay Simon Beaufoy
Adapted from the novel by Paul Torday
Emily Blunt … Harriet Chetwode-Talbot
Ewan MacGregor … Dr Fred Jones
Amr Waked … Sheikh Muhammed
Tom Mison – Captain Robert Mayers (Harriet’s boyfriend)
Kristin Scott Thomas – Patricia Maxwell (press secretary to PM)
Rachel Stirling – Mary Jones (Fred’s wife)
Years ago we went to a literary festival. Not a big one. It might have been the Bournemouth one that never happened again. Mills & Boone had sent down an author to explain how to write Mills & Boone romances. She appeared in pink / peach twin set and pearls, coiffeured hair, high heels in a waft of exotic perfume that made me sneeze in the front row. Then she kicked off the shoes, shook out her hair, announced she was a maths teacher in a previous life and had worked out the formula, which she then explained. It was the best talk on writing I’ve ever attended.
The unlikely couple: Harriet and Dr Fred
The main storyline in Salmon Fishing in The Yemen fulfills all her criteria. Unlikely couple (Emily Blunt, Ewan MacGregor) are forced together by chance. He’s the unworldly aloof scientist. She is the brilliant organiser, who can drop into Mandarin in a moment when need be. Both have other romantic commitments. His wife is unlikeable and swans off to Geneva to manipulate the eurobond market (I told she was unlikeable) leaving him bereft. But Emily Blunt’s own romantic interest has a twist. Robert is handsome, honourable, clean-cut, a warrior, a war hero … but he goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Consumed by grief, she is not free to love again. Ewan is sweetly sympathetic. Slowly we get a will they / won’t they get together romance between Fred (Ewan) and Harriet (Emily). This is as tight-lipped and British-reluctant as Brief Encounter. The outcome is held in suspense until the last few seconds of the film. The essential formulaic complication comes when the loved hero returns from the wars / dead to reclaim his sweetheart, but is she already falling in love with dour Fred? Yes, story one is pure Mills & Boone. But that’s why it’s appealing. The formula has worked for years. Emily Blunt is luscious, Ewan MacGregor is appropriately diffident. Robert the hero is a hero.
The Sheikh and Dr Fred begin to bond
But that’s by no means it. There’s story two (How they set up salmon fishing in Yemen – and how did they train those fish to jump to cue?), story three (the sheikh versus the dastardly terrotists) and story four, the brokers’ men, or rather the scheming British press secretary, politicians and civil servants.
It’s all classic stuff, but the mix is highly enjoyable, with poignancy, suspense, high comedy all rolled in together. Emily Blunt’s signature is being sexually attractive AND poignant AND very funny. She’s a fine actor, though for highly intelligent, gorgeous, sexy posh girl, she is not playing that far from herself. Ewan MacGregor is a first-rate actor in everything he does, Amr Waked as The Sheikh is highly likeable, a handsome Rudolph Valentino prince of the desert who says “bloody” a lot and who spouts wisdom (think Kahlil Gibran) at the turn of a fishing line.
Patricia (the PM’s press secretary) inspects the kilted guard of honour in Scotland
The PM’s press secretary comedy, and her on-screen interaction with the prime minister is faultless. All the stuff about manipulative civil servants, foreign secretaries, ministers got real laughs in the cinema on the night. Excellent scripting. One criticism is that the high comedy and poignant romance exist side-by-side, but remain separate.
The three main characters in the desert
Is it perfect? No. The attempted assassination in Scotland veers dangerously too close to Carry On Up The Khyber. And yes, Ewan saves his boss’s life. The kilt with Arab headgear for the retinue was funny when the politicians arrived, but they should have scrapped it for the attempt to kill the sheikh. Also, my reading of Wild West duels remind me that if someone fires a handgun at you from over twenty yards, you’d be incredibly unlucky if the bullet hit you. The shadowy terrorists are almost Blytonesque in the acceptance that they want to stop the salmon fishery, but that fact is about all we need ask.
I think snogging in public, swimming in a petticoat and a woman wearing an open-necked shirt with no hair covering might have caused real problems if this had been filmed in the real Yemen rather than Morocco. I don’t believe the sheikh would have waded up to his thighs in a freezing Scottish river wearing a thobe. This guy speaks perfect English, has a strong sense of humour, radiates wisdom. He really would be sensible enough to don waders for the task. I suspect PC agendas have made him a paragon of virtues. At the end, as dead bodies in shrouds are carried away, his attitudes is that the terrorists are “not bad men” and perhaps it’s his fault – he should have consulted their views more. Dr Fred confirms that for the next phase, they should consult the locals more. Hmm. That’s a “Yeah, right” moment if ever there was one. Such a powerful ruler in that area, would, I believe, have poured his vengeful wrath upon them.