'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen'

Laurie Sparham

Lasse Halstrom finds romance in an unlikely desert setting

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 the filmmakers created for themselves in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. But a bounty of front-loaded charm should give Lasse Hallstrom's new comedy momentum at the box office -- CBS Films picked up U.S. distribution rights -- and like the upstream swimmers it's named for, the pic may overcome adversity.

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 sheik (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 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 her (she plans a six-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.

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. And so the movie, despite the game efforts of the cast, has a hard time wrapping up its love story without feeling forced. 

Cast Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director Lasse Hallstrom
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy
Producer Paul Webster