Quirky, genre-defying stories appear to be something of a speciality for British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. Writer of such idiosyncratic films as The Full Monty and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Beaufoy proved to be the sensible choice to adapt Paul Torday's novel about a Yemeni sheikh willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to bring fly fishing to his native desert country. Executing such an ambitious project requires not only an exceptionally creative intellect but an extraordinary amount of faith. Sadly, some disappointingly messy personal transformations have been thrown into the mix.
Dr. Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is the Scottish fisheries expert enlisted to help the sheikh. He lives an unexciting, undemanding life as a government worker married to ambitious businesswoman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). When Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), an agent of the firm representing Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked), contacts Fred for counsel on the sheikh's desire to create a man-made river that could support salmon in Yemen, Fred dismisses the idea as a ludicrous proposition from a half-mad eccentric. Then British forces accidentally destroy a mosque in Afghanistan, and the prime minister's press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) is desperate for a feel-good Anglo-Arab story. Suddenly Fred finds himself tasked to help the sheikh's bold vision become a reality.
Such a setup is ripe for satire, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, and brief language) certainly delivers. Fred initially treats his assignment as if he were a knowing participant in a snipe hunt. His pie-in-the-sky proposals, though, are continually met with approvals from the sheikh, with his deep pockets and bottomless reservoirs of faith. The sheikh not only believes that the creation of a fly-fishing river in Yemen will be successful, but he also views the enterprise as a way of curing the restless, violent souls of his people.
The sheikh's reliance on faith turns the film on its head a bit, as Fred, very much a man of science, comes to realize he must overcome his lack of faith in the project (and in basically every aspect of his life) if he is to succeed.
The script effectively explores Fred's struggle by comparing his life to a salmon's inborn instinct to swim upstream. For years, the humorless, anti-social Fred has been figuratively coasting downstream until one day, in a striking visual, he literally stops in the middle of a crowd, turns around, and walks against the crowd to find Harriet and help her with a challenging personal crisis.
While it's standard practice not to reveal too many plot developments in a review, potential viewers will likely want to pre-evaluate the course Fred takes in the discovery of his natural, so-called authentic self. The connection Fred, though married, makes with Harriet deepens from concerned colleague to interested romantic partner.
In a recent interview, screenwriter Beaufoy describes romantic love as a very messy proposition, but the emotional wreckage left behind by Fred's actions is a lot to stomach. Actor McGregor recently remarked that he enjoys portraying characters in real-life situations, and that's apt considering that about one-third of UK marriages end in divorce.
All the more poignant, McGregor and Blunt have excellent chemistry in this film, despite McGregor's character having at least a mild case of the socially restricting Asperger's syndrome. Kristin Scott Thomas steals every scene she appears in with her comedic turn as the public-relations-obsessed press secretary.
Beaufoy has worried that people may conclude the film is a documentary about fishing by its title. Ironically, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen covers a host of genres, most of them quite effectively: romantic comedy, political satire, emotional drama, destructive self-discovery quest. A fishing documentary it most certainly is not.