Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the sort of movie I am supposed to love.
It has the handsome but geeky married fisheries expert, Dr Alfred Jones (the ever delectable Ewan McGregor) whose marriage died long ago, who deserves a second chance at love. The driven but likeable investment consultant, Dr Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) who find true love but loses it only to find it unexpectedly again… twice. And of course, the enlightened Yemeni sheikh, who is the one commissioning the bringing of the titular salmon to the Yemen, who looks hopelessly self-indulgent at first but soon turns out to have a heart of a gold and the enlightened spirit of a renaissance man.
Together these three unlikely team mates work together to realise an impossible dream – to bring salmon to a desert environment and in so doing create an agricultural future for the sheikh’s beleaguered subjects. In so doing they learn lessons about the true nature of faith, that it is possible for life to come alive in surprising, delightful ways, and that though you may be opposed at every turn that dreams can come true, no matter how daunting the odds.
It is, on paper, the sort of film I should lap up. But somewhere in the film, I found its admittedly attractive mix of quirkiness and loveliness lost its capacity to beguile. Much like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it is a sweet movie, with more appealing aspects that a villa looking out onto the lavender filled valleys of Tuscany, but one which sadly to do much of anything with all this sweetness.
So where does a movie this sweet and likeable go so lamentably wrong? I think firstly in its rush to establish how much the two lead characters deserve to be together, it glosses over all manner of character and plot inconsistencies with the giddy joy of a scriptwriter high on the joy of the heart warming scenario he or she is crafting. They were so in love with the pure goose bump-inducing wonder of that which they have created – and again there is a great deal to like about this movie – that they forgot to fully round up out certain characters or make sure that the plot or set up holes weren’t big enough to fly an Antonov plane through.
For instance, the respective partners of Alfred and Harriet, who endearingly spend much of the movie call each other by their full professional titles (which speaks more to Alfred’s lack of emotional intimacy more than anything) are sketched in the broadest possible terms with just enough screen time to make them known but not necessarily liked. But because both are featured so briefly and then re-introduced into the film later on in so cursory a manner as to make it look like an afterthought, you are left wondering why they are there at all.
For instance Harriet’s boyfriend of three weeks (who is absent from the film because of reasons I won’t reveal here) is by all accounts a charming man who woos Harriet and is everything she hoped he would be. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, when he has just been reunited with Harriet (after a short period of time oddly out of sync with the time taken to construct a massive engineering project), he spouts a few tokenistic vaguely racist comments about Arabs. Right there, you know you’re supposed to react to him like a half-baked pantomine character and go “Boo! Hiss!” but frankly I still rather liked him, and wouldn’t have been at all upset if Harriet had gone off with him rather than Alfred.
And Alfred’s wife of many years is cold and distant in the first part of the movie, having clearly clocked out of the marriage years earlier, only to become an angry then pleading spurned wife begging for Alfred not to leave her. Perhaps this is believable. There is every chance you could be awakened to what you have only when you are in very real danger of losing it, but it’s all a little bit too little, too late, and dealt with in such a rushed “Ooh we’d better make her seem a little sad” kind of way, that you don’t much care that the marriage has ended, or that Alfred is free to join up with Harriet at last.
It’s that lack of character believability that detracts from what should be the kind of story I would love. You reach the end of the movie when all the loose ends are tied up in pretty pink bows of happiness, which is the point of a romantic comedy I normally adore (leaving me to walk from the cinema sighing about the joy of love, true love) and are ambivalent about whether Harriet and Alfred should end up together. The fact that they do is also handled in an almost ham fisted manner with decisions being made in the blink of an eye mere seconds after others are tossed into the howling desert winds.
It is the sort of movie I should adore, and no doubt many people will. It has sweet characters deserving of finding eternal happiness, surely a bedrock requirement for any romantic comedy, and secondary characters that are either warmly supportive or just plain funny – Kristin Scott Thomas displays an unexpected gift for comic timing as the British Prime Minister’s press secretary who seizes upon every opportunity as a chance to get as much favourable media coverage as possible – and a heartwarming story of triumphing over adversity.
And yet for all these lovely qualities, it is missing the sort of substantial underpinning (while it does try its hand at various points to make Very Important points about religion, politics, and the price of progress, they all fizzle to nothing) that an average though appealing romantic comedy needs to move from sweet and lovely to truly great and memorable.