Like a good, sugar-lending neighbor, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is there, and it’s generally pleasant and nice enough. By the film’s oddly dry, non-metaphorical title, it sounds like less of a catch and more of a bore. The film is based on the satirical 2007 novel by Paul Torday, which might seem like a guide to fly fishing, however, it’s as much about the hooking of fish as The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is about hunting and fishing. Sure, there’s hydro-engineering and salmon galore, but it’s more of a love story, just a pretty toothless one.
A “visionary” Yemeni sheik named Muhammed (Amr Waked) wants to introduce salmon fly fishing to his desert country in the Middle East. When buttoned-down British fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) receives an e-mail from investment consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) about building the sheik’s pipe dream into a 50-million pound project, he’s skeptical from the onset. Meanwhile, the bleak conflict in the Middle East has the Prime Minister’s bossy PR officer, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), looking for a good news story, until the British-Yemeni collaboration sounds like the most positive PR project. Although bringing salmon into the arid river seems “fundamentally infeasible,” Dr. Jones reconsiders and makes the impossible dream possible.
McGregor is charming as always and the lovely Blunt is a peach. Their Alfred and Harriet work up enough interest as characters but not really as romantic partners. Though Alfred has his quirks (Harriet even assuming he has Asperger’s early on), McGregor doesn’t overplay them. The two actors don’t work up much chemistry beyond a platonic level, but they radiate a sweetness.
As subplots for their characters, Alfred is henpecked by his wife Mary (Rachael Stirling), a government employee who travels abroad to Geneva. Their marriage has clearly gone stale. Then there’s Harriet who has been dating an Army captain, Robert (Tom Mison), for three weeks, and he’s posted to Afghanistan, only to go missing in action. Once Harriet gets a call about this news, she falls into emotional disarray. These subplots are at least necessary for Alfred and Harriet to grow and give them a commonality. Even the conclusion of Harriet’s M.I.A. beau isn’t so much a narrative contrivance as it later becomes a PR move on Maxwell’s part.
Adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and directed by Lasse HallstrÃ¶m (2010’s “Dear John”), the film has a bland, low-key sensibility. HallstrÃ¶m is more understated with this material, eschewing the sentimental melodrama often found in his previous films. Early on, there’s even some British-y quick-wittedness to the dialogue, but it tails off once Harriet and Alfred take it to Yemen. Terrorism and Middle Eastern issues figure into the plot, but are tossed out before teetering the tone into tragedy. However, the story itself doesn’t create enough of a dramatic ripple for us to really care whether or not its two protagonists get together in the end, even though we know they might.
Scott Thomas is comically shrewd and having all the fun, ready to chew up all the fish (and her co-stars) like a piranha. Her prickly, cynical edge is a much-needed contrast with the levity of the film’s tone. Also, as the sheik, Waked has a serenity and charisma. The peerless look of the film is really what makes it so watchable. Terry Stacey’s luminous cinematography is a sight to behold, and the scenery in “the” Yemen (Scotland and Morocco as stand-ins) is appropriately tranquil.
A benign little trifle, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” has its charms, but on the whole, it’s small potatoes. It doesn’t annoy or cloy, and definitely doesn’t offend, but doesn’t fully engage you either. Hard to defend but hard to dislike, the film earns most of its good will from an appealing cast. Still, there are plenty of more significant fish in the sea that you’ll probably forget this mellow one was ever swimming.
108 min., rated PG-13.
GRADE: C +