An Arab sheikh with more money than sense wants to import the sport and/or lifestyle of salmon fishing from cold and rainy Scotland to the barren desert of Yemen. In the meantime, the British government is floundering from scandal to scandal and greedily seizes upon the idea of a cultural rapprochement between the West and the Arab world through this fishing enterprise; it is even better that the sheik is willing to foot the entire bill. The messy details will be filled in by the Fisheries Department representative Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and an investment rep for the sheikh, Ms. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt).
Naturally, Dr. Jones is incredulous that anyone would think it feasible to move 10,000 salmon from Scotland to Yemen and considers his assignment a fool’s errand. Harriet’s apparent upper class business school education prepared her not to stop and question these silly survivability issues. Oh, and out of nowhere she seems to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. Two characters being (in) conveniently thrust together like this is a classic setup for the romantic comedy genre. You expect to them to start out at odds, grow fond of each other, overcome some last second conflict, and then float away together with their aquatic metaphors. Well, the joke is on the audience and the culprits are the marketing execs.
The preview for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows it as a joke a minute and lightly conceived romantic comedy; however, there is barely any noticeable comedy and every scene left out of the preview leans more toward the dramatic. There is an Afghanistan side plot, an unhappy marriage, tribal terrorism, and emotional depression. The character of Dr. Jones is plainly painted as obstinate in the beginning both towards the project and to Harriet because his character arc is required to end up softer and more compassionate. In reality, even if the good Dr. considered the salmon project lunacy, he would not be so overtly rude to Harriet.
The plan’s financier, Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) is an obscenely rich man from Yemen prone to waxing philosophic about salmon. That kind of money can only come from oil wealth, but Yemen has no oil reserves. The plot never explains the source of the Sheikh’s money, not because it is not consequential to the plot, but because it cannot. The screenplay could never find an Earthly explanation of why a Yemeni sheikh could haphazardly plop down 50 million pounds on a salmon project. The accomplished writer is Simon Beaufoy, who most recently adapted “127 Hours” and “Slumdog Millionaire” into scripts, and even he chose to leave that tiny detail out of the script.
What comedy there is in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen comes from the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas). She is very good at what she does, knows the angle of the story she wants planted in the papers before the event occurs, and moves very quickly to make things happen. Kristen Scott Thomas hasn’t played a character this snarky since “Four Weddings and a Funeral” so it’s unfortunate Patricia vanishes a quarter ways through the film and when she reappears towards the end, the plot has unnecessarily shifted her from comedic to more bureaucratic.
The acting in this film is more than capable, especially from McGregor since he is able to talk in his native Scottish dialect. Sadly, the screenplay is a mess and the tone created by director Lasse Hallstrom resembles nothing from the misleading preview and is much darker than the blindsided audience will be prepared for. Feel free to catch and release (emphasis on the release) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.