Like one of those kitchen machines that can turn nearly any ingredient into ice cream, Lasse Hallstrom has sweetened the satire right out of Paul Torday’s side-splitting political sendup “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” Considering that the novel’s following is almost exclusively in the U.K., where awareness could realistically recoup most of the budget, said schmaltzification shouldn’t affect the film’s chances of hooking the “Chocolat” set Stateside. If anything, Hallstrom’s cuddly approach will improve word of mouth. Still, with most of the book’s major themes gutted, it begs the question: Who wants to see a film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?
As Torday conceived it, the novel’s ludicrous-sounding title — repeated often and evolving slyly from outright incredulity to skeptical plausibility to exultant rallying cry for Euro-Mideast relations — provides the ultimate MacGuffin for a look at bureaucratic buffoonery. It all starts when a Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) proposes a no-expense-spared project to introduce British sport fishing to his arid homeland. As opportunistic politicians waffle between attaching themselves to and distancing themselves from the project, the whole loony endeavor snowballs so far out of control that (book-only spoiler alert) the British prime minister ends up buried at the bottom of the Red Sea.
Reeling things back, Hallstrom and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy instead focus on the romance between stuffy fisheries scientist Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and stunning Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), the young businesswoman tasked with implementing the sheikh’s crazy plan. The two actors have genuine chemistry, which means the pic’s low-target romantic comedy ambitions are well within reach, though there are certainly easier ways to bring two souls together than tasking them with filling Western Yemen’s arid Wadi Aleyn with water and 10,000 North Atlantic salmon.
Described as the sort of fellow who “didn’t look as if he told many jokes,” Dr. Jones is on the brink of the biggest achievement of his career (publishing the definitive article on caddis fly larvae) when he receives a preposterous request from Ms. Chetwode-Talbot outlining the sheikh’s dream project. He politely declines. And so the plan might wither, had the prime minister’s personal spokesperson, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a role gender-swapped to accommodate her), not targeted it as the perfect good-news distraction from negative headlines in the Middle East.
Thomas’ delightful force-of-nature turn suggests what “Salmon Fishing” could have been, hinting at the wild “Dr. Strangelove” potential beneath the surface. Tossing off orders like a general, Maxwell is energized by the discovery that fishing enthusiasts account for 2 million British voters, juggling the P.M.’s image and her own frantic home life with equal zest. Thomas cuts such a strong impression that her presence is felt even offscreen in a series of scalding IM messages clearly injected to supply more laughs.
As for Dr. Jones, although McGregor is a bit young to be facing a midlife crisis, the thesp conveys many of Dr. Jones’ endearingly awkward qualities simply by dusting off his Scottish accent. Too bad Hallstrom’s tastes in costume and production design are so obsessive-compulsive; mismatched socks or soup-stained shirts would have served a character conceived in the Hugh Grant mold far better than the film’s virtual Pottery Barn catalog of perfectly lit, distractingly “pleasant” interiors.
As Fred and Harriet grow closer — to the extent they agree to address one another on first-name terms — whatever passion they feel is complicated by the fact he has an independent-minded wife (Rachael Sterling) and she has a military b.f. (Tom Mison) missing in the field. Granted, love is undeniably more interesting that talk of “migratory salmonids,” but romance doesn’t necessarily follow from their respective circumstances.
Though Dr. Jones is a man of science, the sheikh is a man of faith, and the degree to which the former is willing to listen to his benefactor’s radically different worldview defines what makes this story so special. Of all the reasons various characters want the project to succeed — not to mention the awkward subplot in which Muslim terrorists scheme for it to fail — none is more eloquent than the sheikh’s own motives. Beaufoy captures a bit of that spirit in the script, but not enough for auds to really comprehend why he’s doing it.
Hallstrom has built a respectable career bringing surface polish to feel-good stories, and he’s not about to get all philosophical now. No wonder the invasively upbeat score (from Dario Marianelli) and the obviously reshot ending, which would have played either outrageously comedic or profoundly tragic in its original form, but instead just brings our attention back to the fish.