Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Swimming Upstream
The Fish, The River, and The Games We Play

You look at the title and already the questions start. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?  What's up with that?  It sounds quixotic—salmon fishing in a desert environment.  Impossible.  Useless.  Theoretically possible, certainly.  "Like a manned mission to Mars is theoretical," says Professor Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), but not very practical.  But a rep agency has a sheikh client (Amr Waked) who wants to do it.  It will generate a lot of things: money into the coffers of the fisheries and wildlife people; publicity for the P.M. (as orchestrated by Patricia Maxwell, played with a vibrating steeliness by Kristin Scott Thomas); electricity for the sheikh's kingdom.  So it has its practical side—it gets bureaucrats functioning, people working, so who cares about the feasibility, even if its a crap-shoot (or more properly, a carp-shoot).  Like fishing.

Even Jones, the functionary put in charge of the project, needs some luring to wrap his mind around the project.  "I have a standing with the scientific community—a reputation!"  "A mortgage.." counters his wife in a practical marriage.  He thinks everyone spear-heading the project needs a net.  And his demands start to loom large, asking the sheikh's representative, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) to get the engineers who designed the Three Gorges Dam in China to do the blue-printing and then "get two of those big Russian transports—Antonovs?—One for the fish and another for all the money we'll need."

He gets the engineers (which impresses), but a little research and a talk with the sheikh and a tour of the building site gets Jones hooked and convinces him that it just might work—a blind cast, to be sure, but he's made a lot of those.  And like angling, it takes a lot of patience.  As his benefactor says, you've got to have faith.  Any faith will do.  Even if it's the faith one has putting your hook in the water.

Not unlike the faith you have to have going into any Lasse Hallström movie. He burst onto the international film scene with My Life as a Dog (a film I still haven't waded through, despite sitting on my desk for a month) and he became Miramax's "go-to" guy for prestige pictures for "blue-hairs"—a director of such discriminating taste, that one could actually accuse him of avoiding the subject, so as not to offend.*  The effect can either be good or bad, and I approach a Hallström chronicle with caution.  For every The Shipping News, there's a Once Around.  Every What's Eating Gilbert Grape is matched by An Unfinished Life.  Something to Talk About isn't, really, and Chocolat feels a bit hollow.  "Yeah, it was fine," you say when it was over, "but..."  Not exactly thrilling.  Tamped down.  Safe.  Unexceptional.  The story gets told, but it doesn't move the senses or the emotions.  The movie gets made, gets seen, but disappears from the mind like spun sugar in water.  But every few movies, the elements jell.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of his better efforts, but is still very restrained, though the elements of terrorist drama that pop up tend to disrupt the generally genial tone of the thing.  And like a fine day of fishing, it all comes down to the casting.  McGregor is terrific here, lilting accent intact, and feeling more genuine than he has since The Ghost Writer.  Blunt is given a bit more emotion than she's been allowed her last few movies, and Waked is a sage, calm presence.  And as far as the movie goes, one is charmed with the conceit of the film as a love metaphor—of taking a flyer in relationships, and committing to something beyond yourself, even if the odds are long and the obstacles high. But, ultimately, it's in one's nature to swim upstream, to rise above, because it is our nature.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a Matinee.

* I always remember conservative commentators talking about what a fine film The Cider House Rules was—because it was about an abortion doctor who established an orphanage for "unwanteds"—most probably because they hadn't seen it, for if they had they might not have had such high praise for a film dealing with child and sexual abuse and incest.

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