Three eccentrics, a sheik, a scientist, and an investment broker (Amr Waked, Ewan McGregor, and Emily Blunt), plan to bring fly-fishing to the desert in Lasse Hallstrom’s not quite Local Hero-ish comedy, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
Sometimes we have themes for Family Movie Night. Couple summers back we watched a string of baseball movies. There was another stretch that was all Cary Grant. Sometimes our choice of features is based on something that came up in a talk around the dinner table. Sometimes it's connected to a family outing. We watched Thirteen Days after visiting the JFK Library. Sometimes it's connected to what the guys are studying in school. We watched Much Ado About Nothing because Oliver's English class had wrapped up their reading of Othello by watching the movie version starring Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh and Oliver was impressed by Branagh’s Iago. (He liked what Branagh did as Benedick, but Michael Keaton as Dogberry made a mark. He has since memorized one of Dogberry's speeches which he delivers in his best Keaton impression.) That didn’t count as homework though. If we’d ended up watching Hunt for Red October it would have been for an assignment in his history class. They just finished the Cold War and have to watch a movie set during the period and write about how it compares to or makes use of actual history. They were given a list. The Hunt for Red October is on it. So is Red Dawn. Oh well.
Sometimes we'll watch a movie at home to prepare for one we’re going to see in the theater. This might mean that next week we’ll be watching a triple feature of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. For the two Family Movie Nights before this past one, we geared up for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which we saw last Sunday, with We Bought a Zoo and then Local Hero.
Judging by the trailer, I thought Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was going to be like them, a quirky character-driven comedy about a community of eccentrics coming together to solve a problem. I like this type of movie and usually find a way to compare them to Northern Exposure, although really Northern Exposure owes everything to Local Hero and the form precedes Bill Forsyth’s classic. Robert Altman specialized in these kinds of films and, going back, so did Preston Sturges, and if we'd had more lead time I probably would've lobbied for Cookie’s Fortune or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek or both. It turned out though that Salmon Fishing isn't quite in this vein.
It’s quirky, all right, and full of eccentrics. There's a satirical edge and much of the humor derives from the fact that sometimes even the best people can be motivated by pure selfishness and don't always behave very well. There are stretches where seemingly nothing is happening to advance the plot but where the point is to just enjoy watching people going about the business of being themselves. But it's missing something essential to other movies of the ilk.
In these Local Hero-ish, Northern Exposuresque films, the characters are protected by each other’s company. Even in movies as bleak and cynical as Nashville and The Player, there’s comfort in knowing that people are here to look out for each other. To one degree or another, they all subscribe to what Clarence writes in the flyleaf of the book he leaves under the Christmas tree for George Bailey in the quintessential movie of this type, It’s A Wonderful Life: “Dear George, remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
There’s no community in Salmon Fishing in Yemen and that makes for a sadness at the heart of the movie, despite the comedy, and a lonely coldness almost as chilly as in Altman’s darkest films.
Instead we have several communities that have either failed to come together or that have come apart. A marriage that has not become a family or a partnership. A workplace full of people who don’t work together---it’s a collection of isolates mostly trying to avoid each other and who rub each other the wrong way whenever they are forced to interact. A couple whose romance is torn apart by war. And, on a very large scale, a nation that has turned itself over to be governed by a gang of half-witted narcissists whose only competent member is a merry sociopath who sees all problems as PR opportunities or disasters.
Against all this is a dream.
A Yemeni prince dreams of introducing fly-fishing to his country. Sheikh Muhammad is an Anglophile and an angler-phile. He maintains an estate in Scotland mainly to have brooks and streams to wade into with his rod and reel. Fly-fishing has brought him so much peace and happiness that he has come to believe in it as a civilizing force. He's described as a visionary, but what he is is a missionary.
He's not looking to indulge his hobby. He means to share it. He plans to spread the gospel of fly-fishing as laid out in The Compleat Angler and A River Runs Through It. Fishing is an act of faith for him, but it’s not a religion in a Christian or Muslim sense. It's like Buddhism, a moral practice, a way to discipline thought and action, to live in the moment without ego or id.
An oil gazillionaire, he has the money to realize his dream. What he needs is the practical expertise. There are all sorts of technical and scientific problems to solve, not least of which is transporting 10,000 cold water-loving Atlantic Salmon to the desert mountains of Yemen. He hires a London-based investment firm to find him that expertise and they put a young and merry broker named Harriet Chetwolde-Talbot on it.
She sets out to identify the best man for the job, locates him in the Department of Fisheries, Dr Alfred (Fred) Jones, a scientist and fly-tying genius turned bureaucrat, and puts the plan to him. He promptly proves to himself and, he thinks, to her that she's got the right guy by scoffing at the scheme as "plainly ridiculous" and turning her down flat. We immediately suspect he's rejecting her offer because accepting it would interrupt his routines, drag him out of his office, and force him to confront the fact that there are people living and enjoying lives far more interesting and exciting than the one he's stuck in. Harriet, for one. She irritates him by being an attractive and intelligent woman who takes him seriously and insists on liking him.
As Jones, Ewan McGregor starts off as a humorless fusspot with a shrill and tetchy Scots burr that makes him sound like Maggie Smith as Hogwarts’ Professor McGonagall catching Harry and Ron staggering home from Hogsmeade after one too many butterbeers. He’s prissy, priggish, and prickly, seemingly permanently baffled by other people’s expectation that he care about anything other than fish.
He’s also obviously unhappy and tortured by self-doubt and self-loathing.
His job requires his expertise but it doesn’t engage his talents or his skill. He’s a scientist but he doesn’t do science. He evaluates the science done by others. His work keeps him inside and at a desk but if he ever knew this about himself he’s forgotten it: as a fly-fisherman he’s at heart an outdoorsman. And he’s locked in a dull and loveless marriage. But since Fred regards himself as a very boring person, he counts himself lucky to have married someone willing to be bored by him. And he does bore her. That, however, doesn’t seem to be his wife’s complaint with the marriage. Her trouble is that from time to time he forgets that he’s boring and expects her to find him interesting or at least to find what he finds interesting interesting, which is mainly fish and fishing. This is irritating because he interrupts her thinking or her work to talk to her. Worse than that, he sometimes gets interested enough in himself that he attempts to make decisions that serve his purposes and not hers.
Trapped by his own sense that he doesn’t deserve anything better, he’s not just resigned himself to a life without joy or adventure, he’s become addicted to it.
McGregor’s Dr Alfred Jones reminded me of an even more buttoned-down version of Dr David Huxley, Cary Grant’s buttoned-down paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby. One of the beauties of Grant’s performance in that movie was that even as David loosens up under the twin influences of Katharine Hepburn’s zaniness and sex appeal and becomes more dynamic and sexy himself, he retains much of his original fussiness and nerdish awkwardness.
McGregor does something similar here. The difference is that a pair of glasses and a lab coat can't hide the Cary Grant inside David Huxley waiting to burst forth, but a sweater vest and a bad haircut nebbishize the Obi-wan right out of Fred.
To Fred’s surprise and, initially, to his terror, Harriet sees something in him he didn’t know was there and brings it out in him. She isn’t at all bored by him. She finds him immediately interesting. And she’s impressed by him. This isn’t something special she does for him. This is how she is.
As Harriet Emily Blunt has been given the standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl's job of bringing to joyful life a stuffy, repressed, and emotionally deadened male. I don't know if she's the Hollywood prototype, but Katherine Hepburn's Leopard-taming Susan in Bringing Up Baby is the earliest movie version I know of. Blunt's Harriet isn't much like Susan, except in being irrepressibly cheerful and optimistic and able to energize the other characters around her, particularly her leading man. But Harriet is a fully fledged grownup, well-grounded, serious-minded, and competent. She brings out the best in Fred by treating him as what she takes him to be, which turns out to be what he truly is.
She knows he's an expert so she assumes he's good at what he does and everything he does and says confirms her high opinion of him. In trying to explain to her why the project is unworkable, he lists all the technical problems that would have to be solved to make it work, and all she hears is him coming up with ideas on how to solve those problems. It takes him a while, but faced with her adamant refusal to dismiss him as the boring nerd he takes himself to be, he begins to hear himself as he sounds to her. He thinks the timid but realistic bureaucrat is making an irrefutable argument for dropping the whole idea, but it's really the case that the eager and adventurous scientist who's been bottled up inside him has been trying to shout the bureaucrat down.
Blunt is one of the most beautiful actresses working today, but her actually off-beat features are just cartoonish enough that she can fool us into thinking she’s just ordinarily pretty. Harriet is ordinary in a number of ways, but she’s extraordinary in her cheerfulness and that, not her looks, is the source of her beauty. Harriet enjoys being alive and that means, to her at least, enjoying the company of other people and seeing the best in them. In this she is not at all naive or vulnerable. In fact, it’s part of her strength. And Harriet is strong. Even when she’s devastated by news of her soldier boyfriend’s death in Afghanistan we know we don’t have to worry about her. She gives in to her grief the way you give in to the flu. While it’s hard watching her suffer, we know she has it in her to get better on her own. She doesn’t need Fred to save her from her sorrow and despair.
He needs her to need him in order to bring him out of himself and make him learn how to treat another human being as a human being and not a technical problem to be solved.
Harriet, then, despite her troubles, is no damsel in distress. In fairy tale terms, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the flip side of a retelling of Snow White or Rapunzel---a Frog Prince or Beauty and the Beast. Harriet is the heroine who has to rescue the enchanted nerd from himself.
Harriet and Fred are the romantic leads, but Sheik Muhammad is the movie’s hero and as the Sheik Amr Waked gives Salmon Fishing in the Yemen much of its heart and soul.
We’re not told much about the Sheik. He’s Muslim, obviously, and enough of a traditionalist that he’s unselfconsciously and unapologetically multiply-married. Otherwise he doesn’t appear to be particularly religious. His political and social positions within Yemen are undefined. His authority within his own sheikdom appears to be challengeable, but maybe that’s him. In his dealings with people at home, women as well as men, he comes across as a natural democrat. He’s a prince, that’s all we need to know, and asking after the particulars is like asking the prince in any fairy tale where he stands on the issues of troll emancipation and the export of magic potions.
As a hero-prince, the Sheik’s job is to save the day and Waked makes it feel as if the day is saved every time he enters the frame. He makes the Sheik everything a hero-prince ought to be, intelligent, kindly, compassionate, protective, modest, full of self-effacing good humor, but aware of his strength and not afraid of it, courageous, and quietly but effectively determined to do good. Oh, and handsome, charming, and sexy.
Waked hasn’t been given all the best lines but he makes every line he’s been given sound like the best, infusing his dialog with mild authority and wit.
Among the supporting cast of eccentrics, the most appealing and entertainingly although dangerously eccentric is played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
As Patricia Maxell, the British government’s public relations czarina, who convinces the prime minister to support the salmon fishing project as a way to distract the media from a recent military disaster in Afghanistan, Thomas is, as long as I’m using fairy tales to make points, like a demented fairy godmother with her own agenda granting all the wrong wishes. She charges through the film at full throttle, tossing off killer lines like a cocky carrier delivering newspapers, confident they're landing smack on the doorstep but too intent on getting to the next house to look back to check.
It’s a rollicking, hilarious performance and it’s fun to watch Thomas, a romantic leading lady all her career, freed by a few touches of age to become a a comic character actress. It’s as if Eve Arden had started out as Loretta Young.
At work, Patricia’s single-minded devotion to her job has made her something of a sociopath for whom other people are valuable only to the degree they can be used to tell the “story” she wants the press to swallow. That goes as well for the prime minister whom she appears to think works for her. At home, she is a loving and self-denying, if often distracted, wife and mother. Patricia has solved the problem of a careerist with a family by neatly and cleanly bifurcating her life and her personality. There’s a great scene in which she’s on the phone, simultaneously solving problems for work and for her kids, with both sides of herself functioning at top speed and competence, while neither side cares what the other is doing, if either side notices the other at all.
What both sides have in common is they are tough and good at what they do and they get done what needs to be done. That's good for her family. Questionable for Great Britain since what needs to be done from her point of view isn't policy but PR.
This makes Patricia representative of the one threat to the project Fred didn’t foresee and doesn’t have the expertise to solve and the threat to the Sheik’s dream of building a community that for all his money and his charisma he’s not strong enough to resist. Politics.
Politicians, director Lasse Hallstrom seems to be saying, whether of the liberal, progressive type (Patricia and her gang seem to be Tories or Liberal Dems but liberal and progressive are relative terms), who regard communities as resources to be exploited for votes, or of the authoritarian, totalitarian and reactionary type represented here by Islamic fundamentalists, who prefer tribes to communities because tribes answer to chieftains and their pet shamans while the members of a community answer to each other, are the natural enemies of community.
Since I mentioned it: My review of We Bought a Zoo, Liking the animals, loving the humans.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Peter Torday, starring Ewan McGregor, Emily , Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Now playing in theaters.
Regular readers know that I didn’t have the best movie-going experience when we went to see Salmon Fishing. I wish we’d known to wait because it has since moved to one of our favorite local theaters. If you’re in our neck of the woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is now playing at the Downing Film Center.