Science, Faith, and Cheekiness Swim Upstream in 'Yemen'

Directed by: Lasse Hallström, Runtime: 107 minutes
Grade: B

Lighter fare with a contemplative underbelly, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen is the newest film from Cider House Rules and Chocolat director Lasse Hallström, one that mixes politics, biology, and a little faith with dramatic-comedy mannerisms. Adapted from Paul Torday's fictional novel of the same name, it embraces similar notes as the director's other work: an upbeat but inoffensive tone offers the current for an easygoing plot and infectious chemistry between lovelorn characters, one where you can pretty much figure out where the story will arrive within the first few minutes but relish the journey all the same. Yet, this is a minor gem of a film that possesses an inherent suppleness and import that elevates it above expectations, where the outlandish goal that the characters work to achieve -- that is, to bring fish to live in a barren place dominated by heat and conflict -- bears its well-meaning imagery on the sleeve of restrained romantic theatrics.

Their journey begins with a sent message: at the behest of a wealthy, pacifistic Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked), consultant Harriet (Emily Blunt) contacts Britain's official authority on salmon fishing, Dr. Alfred "Fred" Jones (Ewan McGregor), to discuss bringing the outdoor sport to the dry, hot deserts of Yemen as a goodwill Anglo-Arab enterprise. Dr. Jones, a not-so-happily wedded scientist with Asperger's Syndrome, obviously takes some issue with this; between the climate and the demands of the fish, it seems like an impossible task. After his hasty dismissal, however, the British Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristen Scott Davis) --- who's looking for an uplifting story following a terrorist attack -- catches wind of this proposal and, through her string-pulling, thrusts both Dr. Jones and Harriet into the project as a way of improving perception of the region. With Fred's wife off on business and Harriet's military boyfriend (Tom Mison) called to duty in the war, and a healthy amount of burgeoning enthusiasm, they press on full-steam to the desert.

Salmon Fishing In the Yemen shapes into a sprightly dramedy about achieving the unfeasible with ingenuity, vast resources, and momentum towards a common goal, and a large part of its appeal lies in the airy, vibrant faith-driven tone propelling it towards the sheikh's noble vision. Complexity surrounds the story, from the threat of terrorism to encroaching on the area's religious beliefs and forcing through ecological limitations. Yet, the upbeat tones that the filmmaking achieves, including vibrant, occasionally playful photography from 50/50's Terry Stacey and charm-heavy banter among the characters, emphasize the material as an emotionally-hooking depiction that dresses its relevant undertones with cultural sprawl and optimism, instead of lingering on the downbeat. Sure, you'll be bombarded with chatter about optimal water temperature, foreign dam engineers, and differing types of salmon, but smart writing leads those details into an easy-to-absorb shift from skepticism to confidence -- and watching fisheries expert Dr. Jones spin in circles at the improbable scenario becoming probable stays quite entertaining from start to finish.

There seems to be two reasons why Hallström opts for an uplifting tone, both to ease prospective heaviness surrounding the scenario and to highlight the budding intimate link that develops between those fighting to make the idea happen. In that, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen reminds me a bit of how a Cameron Crowe film might appear with a British slant and a harder-edged topic, low on point-blank laughs but still possessing an infectious, reserved effervescence that, at its core, cares an awful lot about advancing organic relationships in a demanding scenario. The story gets this right in the characterization: Harriet's blend of coyness and assertiveness gains life through Emily Blunt's edgy empathetic temperament, while Ewan McGregor's crack at a doubtful, socially-awkward fisherman-cum-scientist finds firm-enough footing in Dr. Jones. They work wonders for the film's dichotomy between lightheartedness and its occasional stern-faced drama; a scene early on where Harriet and Fred discuss the project's logistics plays with their skeptical back-and-forth, which steadily evolves as they snap pieces of the project, and pieces of their well-hewn chemistry, together.

Despite all that, this isn't a movie purely about messages. Given the premise and the tone, Salmon Fishing In the Yemen really can't dodge its progression towards a conventional and foreseeable conclusion once it arrives in the deserts of Yemen -- both a testament to Lasse Hallström's steady direction and the inherent nature of the story being told. It lacks distinctiveness, outside of certain plot developments (one that involves saving the sheik's life while fly fishing) that weaken the story's mostly practical inclinations. Sure, Paul Torday's story voices a few things about the manipulation and furthering of one's political image in the media and terrorism's misguided ideals, and they create a rush of emotion in the end that offers earnest impact. They don't achieve the depth that this story could potentially embody in its setting and context, though; yet, that's not a story that must be told here. When those components build to Harriet's and Fred's catharses that bookend the story, making ample use of its prominent uplifting intentions about faith in the impossible, it'll likely win many over with the forward-looking charm it builds and its unyielding focus on having faith, and that's rewarding even within this type of anticipated context.

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