Audience charming in the Yemen

Lasse Hallström’s rom-com serves up an appealingly fishy main with a side of political satire, but that only gets it so far.

Patrick Hayes

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In theory, there is much to dislike about new film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Its plot focuses on attempts to satisfy a bizarre, indulgent whim of a Yemeni sheikh. Liberation struggles are glossed over, with the imposition of Western values upon the Middle East being celebrated. And its attempt at satirising an Alastair Campbell-style figure in UK politics is unoriginal, and years out of date.

But, in reality, it quickly becomes hard to deny the film’s overwhelming charm. The adaptation of Paul Torday’s novel makes no bones about the ridiculous nature of the situation. Indeed, a considerable part of the film focuses on the lead characters’ attempts to get over the idea that the project to introduce salmon – and therefore salmon fishing – into the Yemen isn’t just an elaborate practical joke by a mystical sheikh with money to burn.

It’s a fantastic conceit almost worthy of Ealing Studios, and under Lasse Hallström’s direction, it would require a harder heart than mine to not get sucked in. Even Ewan McGregor’s thoroughly grounded civil-servant character, Fred, does. Yes, the idea of introducing cold-water salmon into a largely desert country which experiences massive fluctuations in temperature is mad. But there is something inspiring about the idea that with sufficient willpower even such a bonkers notion can be realised, despite the sheikh’s professed concern about the hubris of his actions.

That such a quirky project is taking place with British help is quickly identified by the prime minister’s press secretary as being a rare opportunity for a good news story amid all of the violence taking place in the Middle East. This side of political satire admittedly sits a bit uncomfortably alongside the more conventional rom-com tale of the budding relationship between Fred and Harriet. But due to Kristin Scott Thomas’s turn as the Malcolm Tucker-esque political spin doctor, Salmon Fishing pulls it off. In fact Scott Thomas pretty much steals the show.

Even Torday’s novel, published in 2006, was late to the party in satirising the New Labour culture of spin in Downing Street, with Armando Iannucci having done a far more comprehensive demolition job in TV series In the Thick of It. But Scott Thomas brings fresh life to it. While unoriginal, it’s not hard to believe that the Lib-Con government wouldn’t leap at the chance to shamelessly align themselves with a ‘unifying’ project such as that envisaged by the sheikh. That is until the two million potential voters from the UK ‘fishing community’ kick up a stink.

Despite a masterful attempt to be plain and staid, Ewan McGregor’s Fred never comes across as the completely unlikely match for Harriet as the book suggests – he just comes across as in need of a make-over. There’s also an enjoyable frisson between McGregor and the sheikh’s posh consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (perfectly played by Emily Blunt). And Fred’s refusal to resign himself to fate and his ‘DNA’, in terms of his relationships and projects, is laudable.

The Yemeni sheikh, a keen fly-fisher who sees introducing the sport to his people as a way of emphasising what they have in common, has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Post-Arab Spring, it’s ever harder to suggest that Arab rulers are mystical romantic sages who have the interests of their people close to their heart. And the sheikh’s toleration of the actions of militants to destroy his attempts to introduce salmon fishing, due to the fact that they need a softly-softly approach when it comes to introducing civilised Western values, is only not hideously patronising due to the crudity in which the rebels are portrayed.

But in more ways than one, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a work of pure fantasy, and should be seen as such. Following The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it shows that Brits remain world leaders in providing middle-brow feel good rom-coms with luscious cinematography. Hardly something to trumpet from the rooftops, but if you’re into that kind of thing, it can make for a pleasant evening with some popcorn.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

Watch the trailer for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen:

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