Director Lasse Hallstrom (best known for My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) is a man unafraid of heartwarming, and his latest, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is shameless. The big fish tale of a romantic, mystical Yemeni sheikh (the gorgeous and charismatic Egyptian actor Amr Waked, last seen as Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law in the HBO bio-pic) with seemingly limitless riches and a cockamanie vision of building salmon fishing grounds in his native desert, Salmon Fishing neatly wraps together all the makings of an arthouse wet dream: exotic locales (the Yemen of the title and a Scottish estate that makes Balmoral look like a split level), a star-crossed yet inevitable love story between bumbling, uptight scientist, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor, looking good in tweeds) and crisp, proper career gal Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), plus the necessary danger element in the vague shape of possible Jihadi assassins, or at least jealous locals.
Which is not all to say that Salmon Fishing isn’t, on many levels, perfectly enjoyable. Waked is exceedingly easy on the eyes, especially in the fabulous sheikh get-ups he wears, and McGregor and Blunt are professional charmers. Kristin Scott Thomas brings a welcome squirt of lemon to the proceedings, as Bridget Maxwell, the pragmatic and sharp-tongued press secretary to the Prime Minister, who just wants everyone to get on with providing her a good news story out of the Middle East already. With a lacquered helmet of hair and lips clenched good and tight and even a cigarette glowering from between her fingers, Thomas holds nothing back, and it helps this movie from slumping into a big pudding.
There must be complications in a movie love story, of course, but the ever-so-slight ones provided by Dr. Jones’ uncomely, bullying, withholding and frigid wife of decades and Miss Chetwode-Talbot’s boyfriend of only three weeks dissolve almost immediately. Both disappear as expediently as mothers in a Disney movie, and McGregor and Blunt are left to wear pleasingly matching linens and khakis and stare at each other wetly over moor, rushing river and desert bluffs.
To help pump up the slight drama, there is evil music any time the Bad Arabs make an appearance, and an amusing montage of outraged British fishermen. However, for the most part, Salmon Fishing is a gently amusing (the audience at the screening I attended tittered regularly) piece of escapist romance. More ham than salmon.