Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 31, 2012 5:44 pm 
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EMILY BLUNT AND EWAN MCGREGOR IN SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN

Something fishy

Salmon Fishing in the Yeman is a droll and thoughtful tale (in the novel by Paul Torday) that loses much of its edge and intellectual force but retains sweetness and charm in this translation to the screen by Lasse Hallström. The Swedish director has that tendency. With films like My LIfe As a Dog, Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Chocolat, he has taken good stories and skillfully softened them. When he does something by Nicolas Sparks (the 2010 Dear John, with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried) it comes pre-softened. This one is about doing the impossible -- salmons don't fit in the Yemen, and trying to put them there isn't going to improve the reputation of the British government. It's a satire on bureaucratic absurdity with a romance tied to it and a wise message from the East. But Hallström's version is more like a romance with a bit of satire folded in with the sauce, along with a little lip service to faith and swimming upstream.

The main character being a very mild man, decent but with no sense of humor, is a perfect vehicle for Ewan McGregor. Or is it? His perfection in the role is part of what makes this movie so flat. One can only imagine what might have happened if Armando Iannucci had gotten to direct a film from this book -- with fellow Scot Peter Capaldi in McGregor's role (McGregor gets to sport his native brogue here). Kristen Scott Thomas, as a government PR person, is right out of Iannucci country: she's acting in a different movie from McGregor, Emily Blunt and Amr Waked. Under the circumstances, the machinations of government come to seem just ways of getting Blunt and McGregor together -- two lonely people, one unhappily married (Ewan), the other (Emily) with a military boyfriend who's gone missing (Tom Mison), destined to find love (spoiler alert) on a futile endeavor in the Yemen. Scott Thomas is funny, smoking, swaggering, and swearing with the best of them, but much of her performance falls flat because it can't find purchase in this defanged, romance-obsessed version of the book.

The politics comes from an imaginary, slightly-in-the-future British government, basically just more of what the Brits have got already only a bit wackier. The PM has gotten the country heavily involved in wars in the Middle East and wants some good publicity where he makes nice with the Arabs. He discovers there's a Yemeni sheikh (Waked) who owns a sporting estate in Scotland and wants to introduce salmon to his native land. Why not help this along -- never mind that it's ridiculous --so the PM can have a nice photo op of salmon fishing in the Yemen with an Arab? This is where Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor), a fisheries expert, is called in, and with him a partner brought along to implement this project, a businesswoman, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt).

Most of the film focuses on their shyly approaching each other while negotiating their awkward prior entanglements, his wife, her missing boyfriend. Their even getting to a first-name basis takes some doing. The two actors have good chemistry, helped by Blunt's slightly harried-seeming beauty and McGregor's brogue. Unfortunately they, like all the rest, have been made more bland than necessary. Where Sheikh Mohammad comes in is to debate about faith with the rationalistic Jones, but this strain just gets lost in the watered-down screenplay because the Sheikh isn't given enough lines and the two men's coming together seems not a serious intellectual bonding, with the westerner learning the wisdom of the East, but merely a polite working arrangement.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, with adapted screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, debuted at Toronto in September 2011, and went into limited US release March 9, 2012. It opens in the UK April 20.

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