What struck me initially as a slightly disastrous title altered significantly after watching this delightful film directed by Lasse Hallström (who also directed Chocolat in 2000, among various other light-hearted confections).
Somehow, in my mind post-viewing, the title, though clearly a mouthful, has come to represent the whimsical philanthropy embodied by the film.
The first thing that strikes everyone is the absurdity of the title: "Salmon in the Yemen? How absurd". Well, exactly. The premise of the film is an unusual request made by Sheik Muhammad (played by the craggily beautiful Amr Waked), a Yemeni ruler of unspeakable riches whose passion is fly fishing, something he indulges in at his private castle in Scotland where he owns acres of land through which run salmon rich streams.
The Sheikh contacts Alfred "Fred" Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government employee who is an expert in salmon fisheries via a consultant Harriet Chetwode-Jones (Emily Blunt). Fred summarily dismisses the idea as hogwash (one can't help but understand his reluctance), but is pressured by the Prime Minister's frighteningly single-minded press secretary Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristen Scott Thomas) when she gets wind of the request. Envisioning the exceedingly positive headlines for Britain's international relations were the project to succeed, Maxwell steamrolls all involved. Fred reluctantly comes up with requests such as an impossible budget (millions of pounds) and a consultation with the Chinese engineers of the Three Gorges dam.
The Sheikh wires the money without really batting an eye, and Harriet arranges the aforementioned meeting translating fluently in Mandarin herself. Fred, the slightly stiff British civil servant, finally starts to entertain some slight hope in the success of the project.
When he is invited to meet the Sheikh at his Scottish castle, Fred begins to see the real philanthropic feeling behind what seemed initially like a vanity project. The Sheikh is an idealistic warm-hearted man who seeks to bring change, and hope to his oil rich, but otherwise barren land by creating a system of irrigation that would also include salmon fishing. Unfortunately, he is seen as a transgressive force by many of his own people, and herein lays one of the main conflicts of the film.
While meant to be a romantic comedy (which it is, in fact, a supremely enjoyable one) the film surpasses its genre mainly because of its excellent script written by Simon Beaufoy, who adapted Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Beaufoy is able to include plotlines which are as captivating as the central love story, if not more so, and he is supported by an extraordinary cast in McGregor, Blunt and Scott Thomas, all of whom are able to take their slightly caricatured characters and make them seem like real, warm-blooded, compassionate people (well, not Scott Thomas's character, but she excels all the same).
There are many delightful scenes and little moments in this gem of a film that is occasionally silly, but more often incredibly moving. The romance blossoms charmingly between Harriet and Fred, but it is the friendship that develops between the Sheikh and these two determined supporters that is most touching. At a time when the Middle East seems opaque and terrifying more often than not, it takes brave and ingenious writers and directors to portray another, better version, however fictional.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a perfect example of how one can make a light-hearted film with a core of goodness at its heart. One can't help but wish that there were more such films out there.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available at: Music and Expression, Thamel Phone # 014700092