Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Less ‘challenging’ than it sounds

Art & Lit

Why is this film a romantic comedy? That’s the first thing that needs to be said. I have nothing against the genre, even if I’m not its biggest fan, but generally romantic comedies have to pick between one genre or the other. The book on which this movie is based was a nice enough comedy, being a fun mix of satire and farce. The adaptation, however, loses much of the charm by choosing to focus on the relationship between Ewan McGregor’s Dr Alfred Jones and Emily Blunt’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. Satire and romance aren’t natural companions.

Not to say that this is a bad film; far from it. Ewan McGregor could do the whole easy going charm thing in his sleep at this stage and Emily Blunt is always watchable. Truth be told this is a very nice, very unchallenging film. This is the kind of film you watch with your family on a rainy day during the holidays. It’s easy to follow, uncontroversial and still mildly funny.

The movie centres on an attempt by a Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) and his attempts to introduce salmon into his arid homeland. No explanation is given as to why he’s decided to do this. This is the sort of piece where people need not have anything so strenuous as character depth so long as they smile accommodatingly and advance the story. It does feel almost like a poor Ealing comedy from the 50s in the way that it doesn’t bother trying to justify itself or explain why things are happening; it just makes sure we’re okay with that. For example, Ewan McGregor’s character may be married when he enters into this affair but it’s okay, we are told – the marriage is mutually unhappy!

Any review of this movie will tell you the same thing – the highlight is Kristen Scott-Thomas’ turn as the Prime Minister’s waspish press secretary. It’s a sort of Alastair Campbell role – she’s primarily concerned with using the salmon venture as a way of putting a positive spin on Anglo-Arab relations. But here the problem of the genre of the movie arises again. In the book this allowed for an examination of the government’s policy on the Middle East and especially Iraq whereas here, for all of the fun of seeing her do it, Kristin Scott-Thomas primarily seems to exist as some sort of enabler to the sillier elements of the plot: “This is a silly idea we won’t be allowed to do it.”

“I represent The Government. This idea is okay with us, even mandatory”

“Oh lovely, I think I’ll go cheat on my wife now”

It’s that sort of movie.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. As hard as the term is to define, there is some sort of chemistry between the two leads and the sheikh himself is an immensely likeable character. Overall this film is probably worth seeing but only if there’s nothing else really on.

Daniel Purcell