Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Movie review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, dir Lasse Hallstrom (2011)

Emily Blunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot and Ewan
McGregor as Dr Alfred Jones in Salmon Fishing
in the Yemen
Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is a consultant representing a rich Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) who has a dream of establishing salmon fishing in his country. Harriet contacts Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a British fisheries expert, to gauge the potential of the project. Fred dismisses the idea until it attracts the attention of Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), a senior PR operative in the government who is looking for a "good news story" in the region to offset recent adverse exposure. Patricia fast-tracks the idea, and presses Fred's manager, Bernard Sugden (Conleth Hill), to implement it. There are problems but the enterprising trio of Harriet, Fred and Sheikh Mohammed push it forward.

That's the gist of the story and not surprisingly it doesn't really do the film justice. This romantic comedy focuses also on the relationship between Harriet and Fred, which is complicated by the presence of Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), Harriet's boyfriend of a few weeks. Tom is assigned to combat, then goes missing, feared dead. To further complicate matters, Fred has a mild form of autism, like Asperger's syndrome. There's also his unfulfilling relationship with his wife, Mary (Rachel Stirling). Brought together by the ups and downs of trying to realise Sheikh Mohammed's almost impossible dream, Harriet and Fred forge a close bond of trust, especially when Harriet's anxiety over Tom's situation erupts; Fred is compassionate and supportive, and is there for Harriet when she needs help. The bonds of trust thus built qualify Harriet and Fred for romance, especially when they are contrasted with the cynicism displayed by other characters in the film, such as Bernard and Patricia. It's for Harriet and Fred that we barrack, most definitely.

Sheikh Mohammed is a deeply sympathetic character as well. His aspiration for establishing a salmon fishing ground in the Yemen is built on a sincere appreciation for what he thinks the pastime can do for many people; he thinks that it is the kind of Western thing that can add value to the lives of people in his own country. Amr Waked's skillful portrayal of Sheikh Mohammed ensures that this character achieves a firm hold in the viewer's imagination, and in it we also find interesting resonances that draw on ideas of the Middle East, of national development, and of a kind of benevolent absolutism that will also key in with ideas that Western viewers will be familiar with.

In contrast with this positive character there's Patricia, who is however probably the most complex character in the film. Cynical and competent, Patricia ruthlessly exploits people and situations in order to achieve her professional goals. As a PR flak, her aim is to forge a strong, positive image for the government. If she has to use people like Harriet and Fred to do this, then that's the price of entry into the game. But Patricia is also more than just a foil to Sheikh Mohammed's benevolence and exotic appeal. She is also the mother of at least three children and a woman who thrives in a world dominated by the opposite sex.

Drawn into the moment by the pleasures and professional satisfactions of doing something exceptional and worthwhile, Harriet and Fred build interpersonal ties that are strong and enduring. But this simply could not happen without the exceptionally competent direction of Lasse Hallstrom, who builds a delightful romantic comedy on top of a complex narrative structure. Hallstrom's ability to do both things at once without giving undue importance to either, means the viewer is constantly delighted when watching this lovely movie. It's not the first time Hallstrom has explored ideas around international combat, either. There's also 2010's Dear John, which I reviewed here two years ago. That was also a special movie in its own way. Hallstrom seems to have the knack for bringing out the best in his scripts. He also has the ability to create the kind of special magic that is particular to the medium of film.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Despite being disturbed by the book, I watched the movie, and this clarified my concerns. As you say, it is a good story, and it's told better in the movie than the book (and it's greatly helped by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is brilliant). But the power of a good story can be used for bad ends. The sheikh, himself a cliche - the charismatic wise man of the East - spouts inane cliches about faith. But in one of the poorest countries in the world, how did he come by his wealth? This character is constructed so that we love him, and this makes us accessories to injustice. The people of Yemen have been shabbily treated - reduced to a caricature - a lovable billionaire sheikh who follows the impossible dream. Thanks for your blog which I follow and enjoy.