Gently swimming upstream

After Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Cider House Rules, Lasse Hallström moves on to the fish course with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a yarn about a repressed British civil servant roped into a project to introduce salmon fishing to the wadis of the Yemen highlands. It is yet another adaptation of a mid-market holiday read, but it adds, if not exactly spice to the Hallström recipe then certainly some depth and palate.

Paul Torday was 59 when he published this, his debut novel, and scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy has retained much of his source’s salt and smoke.

Ewan McGregor is Dr Alfred Jones, a suburban sceptic with Scottish roots, a scientific background and a larvae fixation. Emily Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the management consultant representing the wishes of a minted sheikh with a passion for salmon. And Kristin Scott Thomas is the 10 Downing Street flunky on whose orders the project is pushed through. “Find me a good news story about the Middle East,” she barks at a roomful of lackeys, prompting a nice cutaway to one of them googling “good news story about the Middle East”.

Jones’s wild requests — £50-million for the initial infrastructure, a meeting with the engineers behind the Three Gorges Dam (“My Mandarin’s a little rusty,” blushes Blunt) — are all met with an amazing complicity, and McGregor does a fine, gentle job on the journey from fogeyish social ineptitude through bafflement and then pleasure at the world of high finance and spin. This is his first truly middle-aged part (he’s now 40) and it suits him surprisingly well.

Blunt keeps a cool head on the hairpin bends of her inevitable switch from mild irritation at her colleague to deep attraction, and Scott-Thomas chows down on a panto role with gusto. But the political brushstrokes here seem very broad; likewise those involving Jones’s careerish wife, honking on her trombone, ignoring his broodiness to tap on her Blackberry, saying “That should do you for a while” after they’ve had largely clothed sex. Similarly, there’s a slight unease about how the film copes with its cultural negotiations: the friendly sheikh says he loves fishing because it cuts through Western class barriers (as well as, at one point, that he has “too many wives to know when a woman is not happy”).

Hallström wheels out the “swimming against the tide” visual metaphor once too often, too, and there’s some drop-off in pace towards the end.

But this isn’t half as gooey as one might expect, and its standing ovation at the Toronto film festival suggests that even if some Brits find the whole thing a bit rich, the export market looks likely to lap it up. —

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