I saw Salmon Fishing in the Yemen during its theatrical run, shortly after I finished reading the novel on which it is based by Paul Torday. I never got around to writing about the film after my theatrical experience, but now that this gem of a film is on DVD I intend to rectify that oversight.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charmer of a film, one that takes the best aspects of the novel (to my mind, at any rate) -- the characters of Alfred and Harriet, and builds the film around how one man's radical dream leaves their lives irrevocably changed. As I mentioned in my review of the book, the Paul Torday novel is less of a traditional novel (which is what I expected when I first saw this movie's previews) and more of a biting social commentary, with some really wickedly funny, sarcastic passages lampooning government and bureaucratic red tape. The movie wisely refocuses on the character of Alfred Jones, fisheries specialist, a man who lives his life like a well-oiled clock, not a jot or dash out of place, and looks at what happens when a well-ordered scientific mind such as Alfred's encounters a man who dares to dream the impossible , one who somehow has the faith that Alfred can make his dream a reality. Ewan McGregor OWNS this movie. I cannot think of another actor more ideally suited to play the somewhat shy, mild-mannered Alfred whose passions only seem to be roused when someone dares to suggest an impossible task that flies in the face of scientific logic.
It is a rare book adaptation that improves upon its source material, but I would argue that director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (the latter responsible for scripting the intimate, character-driven Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and the eagerly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Catching Fire) have done just that. While retaining much of Torday's biting humor and sarcasm, they've managed to craft an intimate, character-driven piece that examines what happens when one man challenges the world to believe the impossible -- and what happens when a straight-laced, logic-driven man such as Alfred finds his worldview challenged, left wanting, and is left with the choice of how to respond.
The role of Dr. Alfred Jones, fisheries specialist, is tailor-made for Ewan McGregor's acting strengths, and for my money it's one of the best performances of his career. In the wrong hands Alfred could become a caricature, a cardboard cut-out of a straight-laced academic whose lack of vision and social skills are played for nothing more than laughs. And while the script it saturated with warmth and genuine humor, it is McGregor's performance that imbues Alfred with life and vibrancy, heartache and hope. When Alfred first receives -- and quickly dismisses -- Harriet Chetwold-Talbot's e-mail detailing her client's vision of bringing salmon fishing to the friggin' Yemen (he'd rather work on his oh-so-exciting Caddis fly paper), he little realizes that Sheikh Muhammed's dream will turn his life on its ear. Alfred is stuck...he has his work, his straight-laced, buttoned-up work clothes (the vests!), and the routine of a marriage that has long since lost anything resembling a spark.
Alfred and his wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) may share a name and a home but live very separate lives. I typically like Stirling as an actress so seeing her in the pretty much completely unsympathetic role of Mary is something of a jolt. But she carries off the ice queen quality the role requires with aplomb. Stirling should be a familiar face to Masterpiece Mystery fans -- she's appeared in Poirot, Miss Marple, and Inspector Lewis episodes, and earlier this summer she had a memorable supporting role in Snow White and the Huntsman. Now here's the thing about Alfred and Mary's marriage...I take the idea of marriage and that commitment very seriously in real life and how it is portrayed in entertainment. But going into this film I was predisposed to despising the character of Mary, because I could not STAND her in the novel. And Alfred, especially as portrayed by Ewan McGregor, NEEDS to move on with his life. Desperately. Trust me on this. :P
Harriet (Emily Blunt), the financial consultant who enlists Alfred's expertise for the fishing scheme, is everything Alfred is not. Effervescent, energetic, full of life, she's a woman unlike anyone Alfred has ever encountered. As the film opens, she is in the heady early days of a new relationship with Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison). Mison has appeared in both Lewis and Poirot, as well as a wholly memorable turn in the delightful skewering of Pride and Prejudice that is Lost in Austen, where he played Mr. Bingley. He's adorable. Scant weeks into their relationship, Robert receives orders sending him to Afghanistan. The deployment alone is stressful enough for the whirlwind "in love" couple, but when Robert is reported missing in action Harriet's fear over the potential loss and guilt over not knowing him well enough threaten to consume her -- a threaten to set her on a path of settling for the less risky, more conventional, safer option -- something with which Alfred is all too familiar.
Blunt is one of my favorite up-and-coming British actresses. In everything from The Young Victoria to the off-beat and quirky Wild Target, she brings a poise and sensitivity to her performances that just light up the screen. As Harriet she's positively luminous. Like a moth to a flame, as their acquaintance develops Alfred cannot help but be drawn to her -- and to the character's credit that is as far it goes. His marriage may be on the brink of imploding, but Alfred is a very deliberate individual here, one who doesn't undertake any action or change lightly -- and that ultimately is one of his best attributes. McGregor and Blunt have a wonderful on-screen chemistry -- from their characters' early meetings where he gripes and she teases, to the later moments where they've both learned to listen and value and appreciate one another, they bring a subtle, nuanced maturity to the story unfolding on-screen. One of my favorite moments is when Alfred shows up at Harriet's apartment shortly after she's received the news about Robert's disappearance. She's sure he's come to "bully her" back to work, when in reality he's brought her a sandwich because he's worried she's not eating well. Adorable? I DIE, IT'S SO ADORABLE. Unlike her physical relationship with Robert, Harriet's relationship with Alfred is built on getting to know each other at a much deeper level, a friendship that holds the possibility of something more, a slow burn all to rarely seen in films today -- and I loved that.
Much hinges on the role of Sheikh Muhammed, the man whose dream is responsible for upending Alfred's life. The sheikh is brought to life by Amr Waked, an Egyptian actor I'm more than a little in love with following his turn in this film. I loved Waked's portrayal of the sheikh's passionate belief in his dream and vision, and his calm manner and extraordinary sensitivity. But best of all, the way in which this film develops the friendship between Alfred and the sheikh is just superb. On the surface the two men couldn't be more dissimilar -- but with the entree of a shared passion for fishing, an understanding of that world, the shiekh slowly earns Alfred's trust, respect, and admiration. Needless to say I couldn't be happier that the film substantially revises the ending of the novel since I love Waked's performance so much. :)
While this film is first and foremost a hearfelt character study, the script doesn't neglect Torday's wickedly funny political jibes. The novel's male Press Office of the Prime Minister agent is re-written for a female -- and as such Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a scene-stealing performance. She is hilarious as the cutthroat politico. She's larger-than-life, oft-times ridiculous, and perfect character vehicle for conveying Torday's biting send-up of government ridiculousness. *wink* Conleth Hill also delivers another scene-stealing performance as Alfred's much-loathed boss Bernard Sugden. Hill is perfectly cast as Sugden and spot-on in his portrayal of the character's sheer laziness. Absolutely hilarious!
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a beautifully-constructed film. The color palette, the cinematography, the gorgeous shots of Morocco as a stand-in for the Yemen -- this film is a visual feast. Dario Marianelli delivers a beautifully-rendered, emotive score -- a must-have in my opinion for any fan of this composer's work. While some might find the film a bit slow-paced, I loved it, and to my mind it doesn't miss a beat -- every scene, each line of dialogue, every nuance of the performances are woven together to create a beautiful, wholly absorbing, heartrending and poignant film.
This film took my best takeaway from the novel -- the power and importance of belief and dreams to one's life -- and ran with it. On his most unusual journey to see the sheikh's dream realized, Alfred must confront the question of his very identity and who he wants to be. Can he change, can he risk trying? Or is his future programmed into his very DNA? Expectations versus dreams, belief, and how the very idea of hope can be a powerful, transformative force in one's life -- if we let it in. Without a doubt one of my favorite films of the year.