Lighter fare with a contemplative underbelly, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen is the newest film from Cider House Rules and Chocolat director Lasse Hallström, one that mixes politics, biology, and a little faith with dramatic-comedy mannerisms. Adapted from Paul Torday's fictional novel of the same name, it embraces similar notes as the director's other work: an upbeat but inoffensive tone offers the current for an easygoing plot and infectious chemistry between lovelorn characters, one where you can pretty much figure out where the story will arrive within the first few minutes but relish the journey all the same. Yet, this is a minor gem of a film that possesses an inherent suppleness and import that elevates it above expectations, where the outlandish goal that the characters work to achieve -- that is, to bring fish to live in a barren place dominated by heat and conflict -- bears its well-meaning imagery on the sleeve of restrained romantic theatrics.
Their journey begins with a sent message: at the behest of a wealthy, pacifistic Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked), consultant Harriet (Emily Blunt) contacts Britain's official authority on salmon fishing, Dr. Alfred "Fred" Jones (Ewan McGregor), to discuss bringing the outdoor sport to the dry, hot deserts of Yemen as a goodwill Anglo-Arab enterprise. Dr. Jones, a not-so-happily wedded scientist with Asperger's Syndrome, obviously takes some issue with this; between the climate and the demands of the fish, it seems like an impossible task. After his hasty dismissal, however, the British Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristen Scott Davis) --- who's looking for an uplifting story following a terrorist attack -- catches wind of this proposal and, through her string-pulling, thrusts both Dr. Jones and Harriet into the project as a way of improving perception of the region. With Fred's wife off on business and Harriet's military boyfriend (Tom Mison) called to duty in the war, and a healthy amount of burgeoning enthusiasm, they press on full-steam to the desert.
Salmon Fishing In the Yemen shapes into a sprightly dramedy about achieving the unfeasible with ingenuity, vast resources, and momentum towards a common goal, and a large part of its appeal lies in the airy, vibrant faith-driven tone propelling it towards the sheikh's noble vision. Complexity surrounds the story, from the threat of terrorism to encroaching on the area's religious beliefs and forcing through ecological limitations. Yet, the upbeat tones that the filmmaking achieves, including vibrant, occasionally playful photography from 50/50's Terry Stacey and charm-heavy banter among the characters, emphasize the material as an emotionally-hooking depiction that dresses its relevant undertones with cultural sprawl and optimism, instead of lingering on the downbeat. Sure, you'll be bombarded with chatter about optimal water temperature, foreign dam engineers, and differing types of salmon, but smart writing leads those details into an easy-to-absorb shift from skepticism to confidence -- and watching fisheries expert Dr. Jones spin in circles at the improbable scenario becoming probable stays quite entertaining from start to finish.
There seems to be two reasons why Hallström opts for an uplifting tone, both to ease prospective heaviness surrounding the scenario and to highlight the budding intimate link that develops between those fighting to make the idea happen. In that, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen reminds me a bit of how a Cameron Crowe film might appear with a British slant and a harder-edged topic, low on point-blank laughs but still possessing an infectious, reserved effervescence that, at its core, cares an awful lot about advancing organic relationships in a demanding scenario. The story gets this right in the characterization: Harriet's blend of coyness and assertiveness gains life through Emily Blunt's edgy empathetic temperament, while Ewan McGregor's crack at a doubtful, socially-awkward fisherman-cum-scientist finds firm-enough footing in Dr. Jones. They work wonders for the film's dichotomy between lightheartedness and its occasional stern-faced drama; a scene early on where Harriet and Fred discuss the project's logistics plays with their skeptical back-and-forth, which steadily evolves as they snap pieces of the project, and pieces of their well-hewn chemistry, together.
Despite all that, this isn't a movie purely about messages. Given the premise and the tone, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen really can't dodge its progression towards a conventional and foreseeable conclusion once it arrives in the deserts of Yemen -- both a testament to Lasse Hallström's steady direction and the inherent nature of the story being told. It lacks distinctiveness, outside of certain plot developments (one that involves saving the sheik's life while fly fishing) that weaken the story's mostly practical inclinations. Sure, Paul Torday's story voices a few things about the manipulation and furthering of one's political image in the media and terrorism's misguided ideals, and they create a rush of emotion in the end that offers earnest impact. They don't achieve the depth that this story could potentially embody in its setting and context, though; yet, that's not a story that must be told here. When those components build to Harriet's and Fred's catharses that bookend the story, making ample use of its prominent uplifting intentions about faith in the impossible, it'll likely win many over with the forward-looking charm it builds and its unyielding focus on having faith, and that's rewarding even within this type of anticipated context.
Video and Audio:
Subtle, down-to-earth beauty makes Salmon Fishing In the Yemen a winning Blu-ray experience, capturing the assorted English office spaces, boggy Scottish locales, and stunning natural outdoor beauty in a fine 2.35:1 1080p presentation. It's about what you'd expect from a vibrant dram-com: warm skin tones in certain scenes, lush palette usage, and plenty of close-ups capture ample detail in skin textures and clothing designs, though details aren't as finely-etched as you might expect. Still, once you get to the exterior shots (in Morocco) that capture textured, sun-baked, earthen vistas and sprawls of barren land, the disc maintains a keen eye for the tan-leaning palette. The caliber of detail embodied in nearly every scene of fishing in the Yemeni portions of the film is pretty impressive, whether you're peering through the water at swimming fish or looking over rocks and plateaus.
As one can expect from a cosy drama-comedy hybrid like this, we're not working with a terribly active DTS-HD Master Audio track with Salmon Fishin in the Yemen. Focusing on a lot of dialogue that's encapsulated in different locales, the key thing to maintain here is a well-balanced focus on the back-and-forth rapport between McGregor and Blunt, as well as from Amr Waked deep, soothing tones. The audio track keeps up with the verbally-driven design; dialogue stays audible, whether in the confines of an office or in the outdoor desert sprawls, and a few nice surround elements accentuate the atmosphere: the cascade and rumble of water during fishing sequences, the chatter of an office and busy street, and the click-clack of animated fingers on a typewriter. And, as expected, Dario Marianelli's flowing music flexes its muscle with plenty of aplomb. English, English SDH, and Spanish optional subtitles have been made available.
The Making of Salmon Fishing In the Yemen (13:07, SD):
This is pretty standard press-kit stuff, full of interviews, behind-the-scenes shots, and clips from the film that does a cursory once-over of appreciation for the film. The content discusses the passion felt for Paul Torday's original book, the chemistry between Blunt and McGregor, delving into the supporting actors -- from Kristen Scott Thomas' comic abilities and Amr Waked's philosophies -- and how the actors navigated the fishing sequences in the film. You'll get a few interesting bits from the interviews, as well as a bit of nice discussion about the photography and set design, but it's pretty surface-running material.
We've also got a super-brief conversation with Paul Torday entitled The Fisherman in the Middle East (3:04, SD), where the writer elaborates on his inspiration for writing his book and adapting it to screen.
You can nitpick at some elements of Salmon Fishing In the Yemen, namely a few questionable plot kinks and an insistently positive tone, yet there's something undeniably amiable and effective about Lasse Hallström's uplifting depiction of bringing cold-water fishing to the desert. Operating with a keen eye for the intentions of Paul Torday's book, this unlikely story can't help itself from following the current created by the chemistry between Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor as they wage a fun battle of skepticism and optimism over the project's feasibility -- and its not-so-underlying political intentions. Riding that line of drama and comedy that's neither blatantly funny nor aggressively point-driven, the arc it follows, full of trial-tested friendship and blossoming romance, touches on ideas of conflict in the Middle East and public-relations spin in a clever depiction of achieving something seemingly impossible. Sony's Blu-ray looks and sounds extremely good, though the special features leave something to be desired. Recommended.