All you gentle people who find yourselves jangled with so many special effects, over-the-top bawdy humor, violence, nudity, street slang and cynical nihilism will appreciate this one. It’s quiet, and deliberate to the point of being ponderous. Yes, it’s a romance, but a hesitant, faltering, sputtering one, especially since the two main characters just happened to be involved with someone else when they met. But it’s whimsical and reserved and even a little inspirational.
Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is a mid-level bureaucrat safely ensconced somewhere in the fishing and wildlife division of Britain’s Parks Department. This allows him to practice casting against his cubicle wall, and to read angling magazines at his leisure. He’s called “doctor,” so he must have some kind of Ph.D., but he doesn’t appear to do any research, and lives in quiet desperation through a long-term marriage with no children, just indifferent spouses with separate lives. He does get upset, though, when his wife suddenly decides to take a promotion to Geneva without even consulting him. He figures she at least could have talked with him about it. The fact that she didn’t speaks volumes about the limited significance of their empty relationship.
Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is also a mid-level functionary. She works for a public relations firm that boasts as its clients some very wealthy Middle Eastern sheikhs. One in particular, an oil-rich, Oxford-educated jet-setter from Yemen (Amr Waked), is an avid fisherman and has a dream about bringing salmon fishing to his native land – not merely for sport but for the greening of the arid wasteland around the wadi, where he has already invested in a modern, expensive dam to irrigate the countryside.
At first, Dr. Jones thinks the whole idea is ludicrous, and strenuously objects about all the practical obstacles to such a harebrained scheme. But the prime minister’s personal secretary, Patricia (played with chutzpah and credibility by Kristen Scott Thomas), has decided that politically, this kind of Arab-British cooperative venture is exactly what is needed. She easily enlists the support of her boss (with amusing e-mail exchanges) and when the executive order comes down from “on high,” Dr. Jones is informed by his supervisor that he can either support this idea or get canned. And after forcing himself to be interested in the details, he finds himself becoming intrigued. His somewhat ridiculous demands of Miss Chetwode-Talbot (he calls her that for most of the movie, part of the formality that sets the stage for their personal dilemma) are met instantly: engineers from China (Ms.C-T conveniently speaks Mandarin). Fifty million pounds (sterling) pledged by the sheik. His sputtering boss having to somehow come up with the 10,000 live salmon to be delicately transported. And our fidgety, fussbudget Dr. Jones gets to think about spawning grounds, and traveling to exotic locales, which sounds preferable to him to coming home every night to an empty house devoid of interest or intimacy.
Ms.C-T, had, in the meantime, had a torrid affair with a soldier suddenly called up for clandestine duty, and when she receives word that he is “missing in action,” she’s unsure what to do. She has no relationship with his family at all, and yet she feels she’s on hold, emotionally, which frees her up to accompany Dr. Jones to Yemen to oversee their unlikely cross-cultural project. Might as well. It’s better than sitting at home pining after someone who may or may not return.
The true believers will find themselves startled by the casual exchange between Ms.C-T and Dr. Jones when observing Muslims in public prayer. He offhandedly comments that he doesn’t know anyone who goes to church. She replies that she doesn’t, either. As if the whole enterprise is a quaint anachronism.
Well, their awkward relationship is somewhat quaint as well, as they accompany each other and console each other and share lots of bonding time, and begin to realize they have developed a genuine attraction for one another. Now what?
Watching “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” will make you root for fish to swim upriver. And for the forlorn to find a little happiness together.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.