07 March 2012

Impractical Fishkeeping

I didn't pay much attention to all the excitement over Paul Torday's 2007 novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and I don't think I knew that a big-screen adaptation was being made but when I received an email from the BFI promoting their preview of the film and saw that it had Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in it, I decided it couldn't be too bad. I still didn't know much about it--beyond the obvious, of course. It turns out that Lasse Hallström's movie isn't just about a madcap plan to facilitate the eponymous salmon fishing; it is a sometimes sweet but usually bitingly satirical tale of politics, cultural exchange, friendship and even PR.

To cover up a PR disaster, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the brilliantly and brilliantly cynical press officer for the British prime minister, needs to find a positive story about relations between Britain and the Middle East. Her minions get on the case but after Googling "good news story about the Middle East," the best they can come up with is a handsome and rich but whacky Scots-resident sheikh (Amr Waked), who wants to introduce salmon fishing to his native Yemen. He loves to fish in the loch in his Scottish estate, you see, and wants his fellow Yemenis to enjoy this simple pleasure. They even built the necessary dam and everything. The project is important to Maxwell, especially after she finds out that there are two million anglers in the UK (many of whom, she hopes, vote with her party) and countless trade publications, whose covers could be adorned with the PM's mug as he tells the world the story of how salmon fishing achieved world piece. It doesn't hurt that the sheikh is willing to drop £50 million to get things rolling.

The heads of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Environment Agency to support the project and so government scientist and keen angler Fred Jones (McGregor) finds himself in a meeting with the sheikh's representative Harriet (Blunt). Fred thinks the very idea is ridiculous but theoretically possible and his wild speculations about how the project could potentially be carried out are enough to convince Harriet that all is well. And an odd friendship begins to develop between them. Blunt is, as ever, playing the sharp-tongued posh totty (cf The Devil Wears Prada and The Young Victoria), while McGregor goes for the sad, serious Scot (cf Perfect Sense; he's sad and serious--though not Scottish--in many more movies). She likes Mulberry, he's a little bit on the spectrum. Oh, and they're both unhappy romantically. Harriet has a hot new boyfriend (Tom Mison) who has just been deployed to Afghanistan, while Fred has a pleasant but dull, passionless life with his frumpy wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) whom he married too young. And what better to foster friendship and even, possibly, romance than loneliness and a crazy pipe-dream?

Inevitably, the best laid schemes o' mice and men / gang aft agley, often thanks to Maxwell's machinations. Scott Thomas does rather steal the show as she plots, manipulates and blackmails. Her IM chats with the PM are particularly hilarious and she complains to the sheikh's people at his ancient Scottish pile that the turrets are blocking her mobile phone reception. McGregor is great too, playing the analytical, diffident geek, who slowly evolves into a warmer, funnier man, due to his newfound passion for the salmon project and his growing friendship with Harriet; his near bromance with the sheikh was also fun to watch. Blunt also did well as the surprisingly complex Harriet. Simon Beaufoy's screenplay was very sharp and extremely funny and the long lingering shots of the lochs of Scotland and contrasted very well with those of the Yemeni deserts (filmed in Morocco, of course). Overall, I really enjoyed Salmon Fishing and now plan to go back and read the book; unfortunately, the film isn't released in the UK until the end of April.

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