Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Lasse Hallström pairs up Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt to reel viewers into a quirky, feel-good story about fish and friendship and falling in love. But a significant flaw lurks just below the surface.
That's how bookish English fish expert Dr. Alfred Jones responds to the idea of transplanting 10,000 Scottish salmon to the arid country of Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
It's an idea floated by a fabulously wealthy, salmon-loving, fly-fishing sheikh. And it comes courtesy of a young representative named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, an employee of the sheikh's English land holding firm.
Dr. Jones' unambiguous "no" should have been the end of the conversation. But the British government is hungry for a positive story out of the Middle East to distract its citizens from the ongoing bloodbath in Afghanistan. "We need a bit of Anglo-Arab news about things that don't explode," says hard-charging Bridget Maxwell, the prime minister's press officer.
And so, with the flick of his boss's administrative pen, the uptight doctor of all things fish finds himself on the payroll of a pastoral sheikh and heading up a 50 billion pound project to bring salmon fishing … to Yemen.
The doctor, who goes by Fred among friends, acknowledges that the outlandish project is "theoretically possible." Then he adds, "The way a manned mission to Mars is theoretically possible."
But then something unexpected begins to happen: He starts to believe it could actually work.
Something else happens too, something even more complicated: Fred begins to have feelings for Harriet. The complication stems from the fact that Fred feels trapped in a deteriorating, passionless marriage to his career-minded wife, Mary. Harriet, for her part, is pining away for her boyfriend, Robert, a soldier who has gone missing in Afghanistan.
Just like salmon fishing in the Yemen, their budding romance is also fundamentally unfeasible but theoretically possible.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
It turns out that Sheikh Muhammad's vision is about more than just feeding his fishing habit. And Fred is slowly won over by his warmth and the scope of his imagination. In the process, Fred also saves his new friend's life at two different moments of extreme peril.
Muhammad insists that fishermen don't care about the issues that divide most people—whether someone is brown or white, rich or poor, whether they fish in waders or wearing an Arab robe. Instead, he says, the virtues of the fisherman are "patience, tolerance and humility."
Fred's feelings for Harriet, while utterly inappropriate, can be lauded within at least one context: his desire to care for her in her season of grief. In a platonic effort to cheer Harriet up, Fred takes her food and generally seeks to encourage her. When news comes that Robert is dead, Fred spends a night trying to provide the comfort of friendship—again with nary a trace of an ulterior motive.
For an unassuming romantic dramedy, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen includes a lot of spiritual content. And almost all of it comes courtesy of Sheikh Muhammad: The sheikh is a devout Muslim—who frequently talks about the intersection of faith and … fishing. He challenges Fred to loosen his grip on his secular worldview and embrace the possibility of faith—seemingly in a general sense, not just Islam—in something bigger than scientific rationalism.
Muhammad says that fulfilling his fishing vision for Yemen would be "a miracle of God." And when Fred responds that he's more of a "facts and figures man," the sheikh counters, saying that anyone who spends long hours in the wind, rain and cold with little chance of success must have some faith. They raise of toast "to faith and fishing" … "and science," Fred tacks on the end.
Undaunted, the sheikh suggests that Fred's spiritual stance toward the fishing project will somehow play a role in its outcome. "Do this with an open heart," he exhorts, "or nothing will come of it." He says, "I intended to create a small miracle [with the salmon], something to glorify God and bring our tribes together. [But] sometimes I wonder if it doesn't glorify man—it's a very fine line." Before the salmon are released, the sheikh gives a short speech in which he observes that "Muslims, Christians and the odd heathen [are] all gathered here in an act of faith."
There is resistance among the sheikh's people. They accuse him of dishonoring God by bringing in Western ways, and they attempt to violently sabotage his success.
In Yemen, he and Harriet witness Muslim faithful bowing and praying. Fred comments to her, "I don't know anyone who goes to church anymore." She agrees: "I don't think I do either."
Harriet and Robert kiss passionately on several occasions and discuss whether they're really ready to have sex after a date early in their relationship. "I haven't done this in a really long time," Harriet admits. Robert demurs, twice suggesting he could sleep on the couch. He doesn't. We see them in bed the next morning. Later, the couple is reunited unexpectedly in Yemen. Harriet pulls off her pants and gets in bed with him—then tells him she's not ready to have sex.
Fred and his wife are shown (briefly) finishing intercourse (under the sheets) in a scene that's meant to illustrate how perfunctory and passionless their marriage has become. "That should do you for a while," she says. It looks as though the couple is headed toward divorce when Mary jealously confronts Fred regarding Harriet, asking if he's in love with her. Though Fred and Harriet have not begun a physical affair, he is already falling for her. And his silence at Mary's inquisition gives her all the answer she needs.
Fred and Harriet go for a swim together: He's wearing trunks and no shirt, she's wearing a white dress that clings to her curves. We see a still image of a scantily clad female pop singer. A phone conversation between Bridget Maxwell and a colleague involves an interchange about a breaking sex scandal. The government official repeatedly delivers double entendres related to men and their fishing rods.
The sheikh's Yemeni enemies twice try to take his life. When a man tries to shoot Muhammad, Fred uses his fly-fishing rod and fishing line as a whip, Indiana Jones-style, to yank the gun from the attacker's hand. Later, two men kill a soldier by breaking his neck and throwing his body over the dam, then open the floodgates. Fred once again saves the sheikh in the raging flood that ensues. One person is killed (offscreen) in the aftermath; we see the body covered by a sheet.
Crude or Profane Language
The film's harshest profanity comes courtesy of Mrs. Maxwell admonishing her sullen adolescent son, "I'm not one of your b‑‑ches. … I'm your f‑‑‑ing mother." Elsewhere, Fred angrily makes a suggestion involving someone's "a‑‑" and a "meter ruler." It's not the only time we hear "a‑‑." Other foul words includes about a dozen misuses of God's name (including one paired with "d‑‑n"), two abuses of Jesus' name, close to 15 uses of "bloody," and a handful each of "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑mit." Someone blurts out "b-llocks."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Bridget smokes. Several scenes involve wine or champagne. A humorous interchange between Fred and Harriet finds him outlining his personal rules for drinking: never on weekdays, and only after 7 p.m. on weekends.
Other Negative Elements
Fred is weary of his wife's continual prioritization of her career over their relationship, a pattern that's evident when she takes a six-week assignment in Geneva without even asking him what he thinks of the idea. But when she has a change of heart, desperately texting Fred in Yemen, "Don't leave me," he responds, "I'm so sorry. It's for the best, Mary."
It's ultimately implied that Fred will indeed leave Mary to be with Harriet.
Elsewhere, Harriet meanly compares Fred's emotionless demeanor to someone with Asperger's syndrome. One of Fred's co-workers labels a delegation of Chinese engineers "little chippy chappies."
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is as much about friendship as romance—or fish, for that matter. Fred's relationships with the big-hearted sheikh and with Harriet transform him and invite him to embrace a kind of passionate commitment to pursuing his dreams that he's never experienced before. And it's impossible not to root for the sheikh's unlikely dream to come true.
The problem is that the film also invites us to root for Fred and Harriet to get together. That outcome is telegraphed from the beginning, of course, cribbed from the countless "odd couple" romances Hollywood has produced for decades. We're supposed to want these two struggling souls to find each other, as clearly they're "fated" to do.
That, however, demands the sacrifice of Fred's marriage to Mary. "Don't leave me," she begs, making Fred's curt response seem heartbreakingly cruel.
Forget about ending with an obvious fish metaphor, then. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is actually more like a Mike and Ike's Zours candy—sweet on the outside with a sour spot at its core.