Salmon Meringue, by Jack Fleischer
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: don’t let the unwieldy title confuse you. Based on the popular epistolary novel of the same name, this is not a political documentary, but rather a light, British, romantic comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. It’s in the vein of The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, or even The Full Monty (written by the same scriptwriter, Simon Beaufoy). This film is mildly charming, wildly uncomplex, and if it had been made a decade ago it would’ve stared Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. This is a Jammie Dodger flick.
When a Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) decides he wants to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he calls up one of his British representatives (Blunt) to make it so. Luckily for him, the British government is also looking for a Middle Eastern goodwill mission. That’s when the Prime Minister’s press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) pushes an unwilling fisheries scientist (McGregor) into the mix, with a simple directive: get it done. Along the way we discover the sheik’s motives, the scientist discovers there’s more to life than science, and I’m sure something else wonderful happens.
I kid. This is a fine film. Really. Its only true weakness is that it’s a meringue: sweet and light. It’s a perfect first date film. It’s an easy to digest “foreign” film, with romance, light comedy, attractive people, and very little in the way of challenging moments or controversy. No fuss! No muss! This movie will have you “winning” the date! Perhaps this is reductive, but this film obviously sets out to put two attractive people together, and (spoilers!) it succeeds. There’s no mystery or complexity in the relationship – then again there isn’t truly a need for that either. This is a cute love story that unfolds more or less how you imagine it would.
While the sweetness is attractive, midway through the film, the idea of “faith” is put center stage. We are told over and over that it is an impossible and monumental challenge to create a river in the Yemen desert that can sustain a squad of squirming, spawning, North Atlantic salmon. Over and over it’s drilled into the characters’ heads that this herculean task is truly a matter of faith, not science.
Unfortunately the task winds up seeming like something I could accomplish on my lunch break with some salmon roe sushi, a tarp, and a garden hose.
Perhaps this monumental design and biological challenge doesn’t seem so great when it’s designed to parallel with a budding romance between two attractive people in close proximity to each other. Sure, McGregor’s “Fred” is nerdy, but giving McGregor a bow tie and poor posture is the equivalent of putting a supermodel Pygmalion in glasses and a ponytail. Sure, there are romantic roadblocks, but they’re made of straw and our protagonists are forever holding lit matches. What more, there are more than a few instances of the Deus ex machina being so present I expected to see a giant foot come down from the sky at any moment.
McGregor is great, but he doesn’t exude pure English awkwardness the way Hugh Grant does. Ultimately, I’d say that this stellar actor was miscast. Perhaps this story needed an older actor, or perhaps a homelier one. McGregor took the roll seriously, but every second he’s on screen I know he’ll wind up with Blunt. I suppose I should also complain about the attractiveness of Emily Blunt, but honestly; you kind of expect attractive females in sheik aide-de-camp positions. She does a great job as always, and this is a roll where being attractive and convincing is enough.
The acting highlight is Egyptian actor Amr Waked (Syriana). Here his on-screen sincerity is electric. He captures the charisma that his character is supposed to exude. Then, going against type and doing so wonderfully, is Kristin Scott Thomas as a funny, tough as nails, foul mouthed, political operative.
Perhaps the film’s shortcomings are the result of the source material. The original book consisted solely of letters and other written communications with no direct interpersonal interactions. Remnants of the story’s original format appear in bits and pieces throughout the film; IM chats, videophone footage, and read letter voiceovers. While all this pays homage to the source material, perhaps it winds up muddling and muting the story.