Thursday, 26 April 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

2011. Dir: Lasse Hallstrom. Starring: Ewan MacGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked and Conleth Hill. ●●●○○

I hope you don't mind if I waffle a little at the start of this review, can you believe it's been five weeks since I last saw the inside of a cinema, let alone had the opportunity to discuss my findings with you here. I also have the added advantage of having read Paul Torday's novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, dramatised by Slumdog Millionaire's Simon Beaufoy and directed by Swedish helmer Lasse Hallstrom. The novel itself takes an epistolic format with a series of e-mails, interviews, diary entries and Hansard extracts which allow the audience to piece together the events that led to the suggested desert set fly casting. Cinema naturally struggles with translating the myriad of styles into a single movie, although the film nods to social networking and modern communication systems, however the smoothing out of the narrative had the unfortunate side effect of downplaying some of the key themes of the novel.

If the central conceit of establishing the sport of salmon fishing in the mountainous areas of Southern Yemen seems far fetched then you will probably sympathise with Ewan MacGregor the middle ranking civil servant in DEFRA with an expertise in Caddis fly larvae seconded into the project much to his personal chagrin. Perhaps you will just have the confidence that money can buy you anything, including the apparently impossible, like business consultant Emily Blunt. Or maybe there's a third way, maybe all you really need in life is faith - possibly a faith in an greater force, God, if you will - or just faith in the power of idea. It's this third way that is personified by Amr Waked Yemeni Sheikh in the novel, a man who's mere presence changes the way people look at the world, who's softly spoken wisdom nicely counterpoints the stressed actions of our main protagonists and most especially the wheeler-dealer Prime Minister's press secretary Kristin Scott Thomas, in a slightly less sweary version of The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker.

It's perhaps a shame that the film stirs away from the practical difficulties of the project, summarising them in a few ill-tempered rants from MacGregor and an extended section looking at the procurement of the fish, as this reduction of focus (along with other decisions) undermines how important faith is to Waked and to the project as a whole, and as a result lessening the impact. Instead the unlikely romance between MacGregor and Blunt takes centre stage with all the complexities of their personal lives laid bare.

You can't fault the two leads, mind. MacGregor does fusty reasonable well, even if he's fundamentally miscast in a role clearly written for someone much older, struggling at the outset within a failing marriage (and well done to the studio for not writing out that tricky story element). Blunt is as delightful as she always is although the romantic decisions she makes in the final third of the film are hard to keep up with.

Of course both of these performances are blasted out of the movie by Scott Thomas who sets the screen alight every time she gets a chance, her Press Secretary is ballsy and insightful, whizzing from flirtatious to bitchiness and back again often within a sentence. As ever she's the main reason to watch a film, although without resorting to spoilers, her final act is squeezed unforgiveably into a - admittedly quite humourous - punchline.

Once again I find myself drawn back to comparisons with the novel. The central romance is pushed forward whilst the issue of faith is downgraded, the ending is softened to make a joke about ineffective politicians funnier. And I don't want to seem like a like literary snob arguing against the very concept of adapting novels but this is a rare case where I feel Simon Beaufoy his missed the mark, taking an insightful satirical novel and turning into a standard romantic comedy that merely hints at the bigger themes.

Overall I can thoroughly recommend this diverting and pleasant movie, even if I can't honesty say I was stunned by it.

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