Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Movie Notes)

15 Mar
Lasse Hallström

Lasse Hallström Image via Wikipedia

Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) is an oddly enjoyable film that defies clean generic definition. Part romantic comedy, part political commentary, and part fable, the film seems determined to teach its audience a lesson about faith and perseverance. It makes fishing fascinating for those of us to whom the sport seems like standing in water holding a stick from which dangles a string and waiting for hours to possibly catch a fish.

The film sets up a nearly impossible goal for its characters—bringing salmon fishing to a warm, desert climate—and proceeds to manipulate the viewer into cheering this seemingly ridiculous task.  Beyond the geophysical obstacles raised by the arid climate, the characters must face barriers created by British and Arab politics, personal belief systems, and complicated emotions.

As the film opens, financial manager Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt)  types an email to Dr. Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fishery expert, requesting that he consider assisting her very wealthy client, Sheikh Muhamad (Amr Waked), in achieving his greatest dream, salmon fishing on a river in Yemen. Jones politely declines, listing all the reasons why this project could never work.

As this correspondence unfolds, literally showing typed words on the surface of the image, we watch the characters’ personal lives through the words. We quickly learn that Fred’s marriage is cold and troubled. Harriet sends the email from a sterile, modern, white leather and chrome office. She then heads off for a romantic rendezvous with Robert, a British soldier, (Tim Mison) she has just met and with whom she quickly becomes passionately involved.

Salmon fishing quickly meets political intrigue, however, when Patricia (Patsy) Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), Press Director for the British Prime Minister, seeks a positive Middle East story to bump a U.S. faux pas off the front pages. She latches on to the idea of the salmon fishing project, ignoring its absurd unfeasibility and instructs Jone’s boss that they must move forward.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen thus sets up a classic binary as Fred is coerced into pursuing the project against his will, with Harriet constantly by his side. Robert gets called to war, and Mary Jones leaves for Geneva. Harriet and Fred are alone with nothing to do but bring salmon fishing to the desert. Within twenty minutes, you know where this story is going.  It’s not that far from a Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy vehicle, minus the pratfalls, and with layers of implausible politics.

Amr Waled and Ewan McGregor in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen"

But, then we meet Sheikh Muhammed, whose vision has set this all in motion. He is dark and handsome, and burns with an inner fire that is lit by pure grace and faith. You simply believe in him. His noble profile and yogi-like demeanor are at once calming and beguiling. Against his scientist instincts, Fred decides that if this man is the heart of the project, Fred can pursue the project willingly.Hallström came to international notice with his Academy Award-nominated film My Life as a Dog (1985). This film, as well as the subsequent What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and Cider House Rules (1999), demonstrated Hallström’s  mastery of difficult emotions and family relationships.  Chocolat (2000) proved his ability as a fabulist. He creates a sense of alienation between characters even as he ensures the audience’s investment in the outcome of the story. His best films are quirky, painful, and satisfying.   He coaxes nuanced performances from his cast, often getting them to act against type to deeply satisfying results.

In some ways, Salmon Fishing is no exception: ample use of typography over the image, split screen, communication via texting, instant messaging, and email underscore the emotional detachment of the characters. Hallström seems determined to show the distance that digital conversations create: Harriet waits by a silent phone for news of Robert when he is declared MIA; Patsy gets tangled in her phone’s cord as she tries to balance spinning bad news and getting her family out the door over morning coffee; a group of Chinese engineers show up, having misinterpreted Harriet’s email; and the camera focuses on a random man in a restaurant as he tries in vain to untangle the headset to his mobile phone.  Maxwel communicates almost exclusively via text messages (even to minions seated only 20 meters away), instant messaging with the PM (complete with thought bubbles and caricatures-like avatar photos); and phone.

The only character who never communicates digitally is the Sheikh.  In his flowing robes and headscarf, the Sheikh resembles a Moses-figure, leading the slaves out of Egypt. His dark skin contrasts the pallor of the Brits who are confined to their offices and attached to their computers. Comparing the act of fishing to an act of faith, he gives lessons about perseverance, patience, and humility.

Hallström plays with multiple planes of imagery, drawing our attention to the construction of the film time and again. Blurring both the boundaries between genres, and the distance between the audience and the filmic object,  he forces us to consider as we watch, rather than settling comfortably into our seats.

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregar in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen"

In addition to the use of split screens, and showing images through type on screen, Hallström cuts often to images of fish in the wild. He causes us to think not only of the ecological implications of the Sheikh’s project, but also of the bigger picture of our own hubris in our use of natural resources. Moreover, by contrasting the most emotional moments of the film with images of salmon swimming or koi carp opening and closing their mouths, he asks us to compare the natural behavior of the fish to the manipulated, over-thought behavior of humans. In perhaps the first emotional decision of Fred’s life, for instance, the camera follows him from above as he walks first with the teeming people on  London’s sidewalks and then, abruptly turns and begins to walk in the other direction, swimming upstream as they say. In this moment we see his potential to follow his heart rather than rules and conventions.

Despite beautiful performances by McGregor, Blunt, and Waked, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen doesn’t quite hit the mark as either a romantic comedy or a fable. In the end, Maxwell’s political machinations are too cruel, the sabotage of the project by the Sheikh’s enemies too anticipated, and the romantic ending is visible before twenty minutes have passed.

Hallström is a fascinating filmmaker.  He captures the literary essence of the books he adapts, creating distance and discomfort through brilliant editing and sound.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows  some of Hallström’s best traits: brilliant performances by its lead actors; camera, sound bridges, and symbolism utilized to heighten the emotional drama; and just enough giggles to make up for the shear predictability of the story.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen [Official Website]

Directedy by Lasse Hallström. Written by Paul Torday and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) from the novel by Paul Torday.

Rated PG-13. 111 minutees

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