At its best, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows off director Lasse Hallstrom’s simplistic love of life and his sense of the cinematic flair needed to work the material that supports it. Whether he’s got a terrible scene or a relatively decent one on his hands, he shows love for it with both his camera and his attention to actors, and it’s these traits that undoubtedly account for the enduring popularity of his vengefully mediocre movies.
At its worst, Salmon Fishing makes pastel mincemeat out of ostensibly noble ideals like the diplomatic bridging of cultural gaps and fidelity to one’s partner (or, for that matter, honoring that new feeling of love when it happens to pop into one’s life). These things are fodder for Hallstrom’s tenderized, though pleasantly stylish, romanticism, and by the end, it’s confusing why he goes to such extreme plot ends just to create space for Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt to nuzzle.
McGregor’s Fred Jones is a somewhat hard-hearted, somewhat schlubby, somewhat inexplicably-played-by-Ewan-McGregor expert on British fish who’s contracted by a lovely real estate consultant, Harriet (explicably played by Emily Blunt), to help realize the dream of a wealthy Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked). The sheik’s idea is to fork over to the Brits a tidy sum from his royal coffers in exchange for a few hundred schools of their native salmon. He wants fish because he loves fishing, and if it brings him peace, then there is no reason (of course) to believe it won’t do the same for his war-torn people. Things are complicated by both Blunt’s missing-in-action soldier/boyfriend and the British prime minister’s sharp-tongued press secretary (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who forces McGregor and Blunt off to Yemen, where they fall slowly, inevitably in love. Meanwhile, Hallstrom struggles to remind himself to bring the plot back around to the carrying out of their ridiculous task.
Bringing the fish to the Middle East proves difficult, but not, strangely, as difficult as two attractive people deciding they want to be together. In comparison to that, flying a few thousand salmon a few thousand miles and dumping them in non-native waters is a matter of a speedy montage and a few lines of dialogue. The whole thing is something like Fitzcarraldo if Fitzcarraldo weren’t so much a study in one man’s obsessive mission to accomplish the impossible as an achingly earnest slice of romantic whimsy. Terrorism and the Afghan conflict are Hallstrom’s excuses to have successful Brits meet and mate against an international backdrop. There are parts of that which are shameful, but most of Salmon Fishing is coyly stylized good will towards men, and it pulls off that mix for a surprising majority of its runtime.