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Romantic comedy isn’t the first thing multiplex patrons think of with regard to the Middle East, and an eyebrow-raising title isn’t the only obstacle filmmakers create for themselves in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. But a bounty of front-loaded charm gives Lasse Hallstrom‘s new comedy momentum that should be sensed at the box office, and like the upstream swimmers it’s named for, the pic may overcome adversity.
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The first act is easily the film’s most enjoyable, with full-wattage performances from three leads: Emily Blunt as Harriet, the British representative of a wide-horizoned sheikh (Amr Waked) who wants to create a habitat for salmon at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula; Ewan McGregor as Fred, the fisheries expert who thinks it’s a ludicrous idea but is manipulated into helping; and Kristin Scott Thomas as Bridget, a spectacularly cynical press agent for the Prime Minister, who’s trying to manufacture some good Middle-East news to counter the downers coming from Afghanistan.
But even as the stage is set for flirty antagonism between Fred and Harriet — McGregor is particularly winning, playing a buttoned-up square for a change, with a brogue so rich one wishes he got to use it more often — it’s evident this scenario won’t be an easy fit with upbeat rom-com conventions: Fred has a wife so inattentive viewers will be happy for him to leave (she plans a 6-week work trip without even consulting him), but Harriet is dating a charming soldier and, upon his deployment, promises to carry a torch for him. However it gets rid of this character, the script is going to have to screw a good man fighting for his country.
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The plot offers an unsatisfactory half-measure: The soldier goes missing in action, leaving Harriet a worried wreck unsuitable for wooing. If that casts a pall over things, so do the occasional, jarring appearances of strife between the modernizing sheik and his tradition-minded neighbors. This chipper film isn’t the kind of farce where terrorism and assassination attempts can blend into the manic background, and while Hallstrom does a fine job of selling the utopian, brothers-in-fly-fishing vibe that bonds the sheik to his Western friends, he’s less successful with these violent intrusions.
After this kind of commotion, the movie has a hard time wrapping up its love story without feeling forced, however game the cast. Viewers won’t be able to say they weren’t given what they came for, but they might feel unsatisfied all the same.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: BBC Films
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
Producer: Paul Webster
Executive producers: Guy Avshalom, Stephen Garrett, Paula Jalfon, Zygi Kamasa.
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Music: Dario Marianelli
Costume designer: Jane Marcantonio
Editor: Lisa Gunning
No rating, 111 minutes
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