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On Movies: 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' lost its bite in film

This artice first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - According to Variety, the British novel “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which I have not read, is a scathingly dark satire on bureaucratic bumbling and puffery – a “side-splitting political send-up” that spares no one its cutting edge. The new movie “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which I have seen, is a modestly charming, decidedly lightweight romance, sweet and a little goofy. What satire remains is embodied in a British political operative named Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) who will go to almost any lengths to burnish the image of her boss, the prime minister.

The plot is launched when Maxwell is told that a fabulously wealthy fly-fishing Yemenite sheik wants the British to help him spend upward of 50 million pounds buying and planting salmon in the dammed-up Yemen River. She checks, and finds that at least 2 million British voters are avid fishermen. So she makes sure the prime minister gives his blessings to the sheik’s wish, seeing it as both economically profitable and politically astute.

At the center of the story are two young Brits who are assigned to help the sheik make his crazy idea come true: Scottish fishing scientist Fred Jones (Ewen McGregor) and English trade facilitator Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). As they help the sheik and his minions plant salmon in the desert where they don’t belong, Harriet tries to avoid getting romantically tangled up with Fred because she is betrothed to a British war hero, current missing and feared dead elsewhere in the sands of the Middle East. But, of course, love will find a way.

Scott-Thomas’ character pops in from time to time for some satirical slaps at bureaucratic stupidity, but director Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) is not exactly the third Coen brother when it comes to generating black humor, and the overall feel and taste of the movie is reminiscent of a cherry tart. Just enough sour to really boost the sweet.

There is no mention in the film of the possibility that some of the sheik’s 50 million pounds might have been spent feeding the 5 million Yemenites the United Nations says are in risk of starving. (The sheik and his men could at least teach them how to fish.) And the fact that Yemen has been torn for years by what is now being officially called a civil war is acknowledged only as the background for an ironic plot twist late in the film, a twist that helps focus the story where Hallstrom wanted it to be focused – on the young lovers, not on the fish.

OK. Emily Blunt and Ewen McGregor do make a cute couple. And “Salmon Fishing in Yemen,” the movie, taken as a fantasy having nothing to do with anything that is actually going on in the Middle East, is an enjoyable romance, as long as you don’t fret about that civil war and those millions of locals who are starving.

Opens Friday March 23