“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a pleasantly quirky, intermittently corny British love story that has a pleasing, novelistic sprawl. It celebrates the value of being true to one’s self, going to somewhat absurd lengths to put that value to the test. The movie is carried by the strength of its performances somewhat more than the plot, which knits together several genres without quite ever deciding what it wants to be.
The story is set in motion when the wealthy Yemeni, Sheikh Muhammad (played by Egyptian actor Amr Waked), seeks technical assistance in creating a salmon spawning ground in his troubled homeland. The superwealthy expatriate is an admirer of most things British but has a special fondness for the blend of egalitarianism and mindfulness he finds in the company of anglers.
British government fisheries scientist Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) doesn’t appreciate the vision behind the project when he’s first called on to consult by the sheikh’s banker Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). Indeed, he’s quite churlish about the geographic infeasibility and technical hurdles presented by the project, and while he’s ordered to investigate by his officious boss Bernard (Conleth Hill), he assumes his succinct scientific analysis will sink the project.
The salmon project, however, is revived by the government’s need for a feel-good story out of the Middle East. Propelled by the prime minister’s blustery press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the effort goes into full swing, with 50 million pounds of the sheikh’s money. The project brings Jones and Miss Chetwode-Talbot (as she is charmingly called) into close contact. While Jones is married and Miss Chetwode-Talbot’s boyfriend Robert is serving in Afghanistan, the two feel an undeniable pull - an attraction that is complicated when Robert is listed as missing in action.
The movie veers between political comedy and drama. One subplot is about British anglers rising in protest against plans to appropriate 10,000 wild salmon for the project. Another is about Yemeni tribesmen targeting the sheikh for assassination because of his plan to bring aquaculture to the country’s barren hinterlands. The spirit of over-the-top satire that animated the 2009 film “In the Loop” is at play here, and it doesn’t mix well with the earnestness of the central theme.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) is clearly at home in the seriocomic mode, but there are so many stories in play here that there isn’t screen time to make every character fully convincing. Miss Thomas is funny and bracing, but ultimately she’s trapped in a caricature of a political operative. Mr. Waked’s portrayal of the sheikh as spiritual and humble is a good fit for the story, but ultimately it’s hard to believe in him as a survivor in the rough world of tribal politics.
Mr. McGregor and Miss Blunt are both wonderful in their parts, and they mesh together beautifully, transforming their connection from standoffish to romantic in a way that plays like a low-key British take on an old Grant-Hepburn comedy. But these performances aren’t quite enough to make “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” live up to its appealing premise.
TITLE: “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”
CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday.
RATING: PG-13 for some cursing and sexual situations
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS