Sometimes a perfectly decent film arrives hampered by a lousy title that tells potential viewers virtually nothing about the film itself. Maybe the crowds might have turned out for, say, The Shawshank Redemption if it were called something a little more appealing, or descriptive, or without the word “shank” embedded in the title? Other titles are perfectly apt. Salmon Fishing In The Yemen isn’t just about salmon fishing in Yemen. But it does feature said type of fishing in said country. What’s more, the unspoken implication of that title—“You will probably be bored by this movie”—is absolutely apropos. In spite of a promising start, an unconventional setup, attractive photography, and game lead performances from Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing quickly turns into exactly the sort of wet cardboard box of a movie its title suggests.
Blunt stars as a high-strung London singleton who, as the film opens, has just started a passionate affair with a solider (Tom Mison). Employed by Amr Waked, a progressive Yemeni sheikh with a yen for fishing, she’s charged with trying to set up a salmon fishery in the seemingly hostile climate of Waked’s native country. To that end, she enlists a reluctant expert, a grumpy government drone played by Ewan McGregor, who’s angled into helping out Blunt by an administration—particularly Kristin Scott Thomas, as a cynical aide to the prime minister—that senses an opportunity for good PR in the project. To his surprise, McGregor discovers Blunt is well-informed on the subject of salmon, and Waked is motivated by nobler aims than the whims of the extremely wealthy. Then, as their quixotic pursuit progresses, the film realizes it has some romantic-comedy items to check off, and Blunt and McGregor realize their feelings toward each other are changing.
While that’s probably inevitable, it’s also disappointing. Salmon Fishing begins as a lively, light satire in which the two leads don’t seem destined to end up together. Then Blunt’s boyfriend disappears in combat, and McGregor’s wife (Rachael Stirling) reveals herself to be the sort of castrating, unsympathetic movie wife (and, gasp, career woman) that audiences don’t mind seeing discarded. Thus the long looks start in earnest. McGregor has fun playing the sort of fusty, middle-aged (and Scottish) character he doesn’t usually get to play, and Blunt, as ever, makes for a fine sparring partner. (Between this and The Adjustment Bureau, she seems to be developing an unfortunate specialty in livening up movies that don’t reward the effort.) But the inhospitable atmosphere snuffs out their chemistry as the film’s liveliness tapers off, and the lightness starts to look like shallowness, especially given the settings. (The problems of two little people amount to much more than a hill of beans in their crazy world.) Director Lasse Hallström (My Life As A Dog, The Cider House Rules) is reliably tasteful, but he doesn’t bring any sort of urgency or personality to the material. And fish and all, it gets awfully familiar awfully fast.