Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Water is the new oil. It has been for years. Many therefore question allocating the considerable water resources needed to create a salmon fishing reservoir in the arid highlands of Yemen. A socially inept British fishery civil servant has plenty of issues with the scheme, but he is stuck implementing it in Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (trailer here), now playing in New York.

Dr. Fred Jones writes his little papers about fish and grumblingly accepts the abuse of his blowhard boss and domineering wife. Yet, when Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the British business agent of a fly fishing Sheik, contacts him about creating a salmon run in Yemen, he gives her an unequivocal “no.” However, Patricia Maxwell, the majority party’s press flack needs a good news story in the Middle East. She says yes.

Against his better judgment and free will, Dr. Jones commences work on what he considers a folly, but soon discovers nearly unlimited resources go a heck of long way. He also finds himself increasingly attracted to Chetwode-Talbot. It is not exactly reciprocal, at least at first. While gung-ho at the start the of the venture, the ominous disappearance of her Special Forces lover in Afghanistan sends her into an emotional tailspin.

Just try not to think of Raiders of the Los Ark whenever someone calls the fish researcher “Dr. Jones.” Clearly, screenwriter Simon Beafoy couldn’t, since his adaptation of Paul Torday’s novel includes a throwaway reference to the Ark of the Covenant. Ewan McGregor is no Harrison Ford (and he is absolutely not Sir Alec Guinness), but he and Emily Blunt display some entertaining Tracy-Hepburn-lite bickering-bantering chemistry. Once again reveling in the sort of role she was born to play, Kristin Scott Thomas is also a true delight as the acid-tongued imperious Maxwell.

In truth, SFITY’s project management scenes are surprisingly engaging. Indeed, it is quite interesting to watch the unlikely creation of a salmon habitat in such an exotic locale. Nor does the film bury its head in the sand with regards to Middle Eastern terrorism. In fact, the local Islamists vehement oppose the Sheik’s ambitious development scheme on the grounds anything progressive must necessarily contradict the spirit of Islam. Strangely though, their plan of attack is distinctly unambitious compared to what their brethren have proved capable of. Likewise, the security precautions are ridiculously lacking, amounting to little more than security guard patrolling the dam.

Still, Beafoy’s screenplay has a lot of wit and charm. However, it is periodically interrupted by heavy-handed New Agey sermons about the efficacy of faith (and a rather faithless faith it is). Dr. Jones is a fisherman, you see. He keeps drowning flies, even though anglers leave empty-handed more often than not. If that isn’t faith, than what is? Get it?

Despite its occasional excesses, SFITY is considerably smarter than most films, featuring some refreshingly punchy dialogue. Of course, it is always great fun to watch Thomas boss around a pack of journalists and bureaucrats. Rather appealing on balance, SFITY is now playing in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.