Imagine you’re watching a romance develop on screen between two sublimely understated actors. They avoid the contrivances of the clichéd way these things seem to go, and you begin to really root for them, despite the complication of their lives apart from one another. They seem earnest, and neither one of them does something to screw it up. Just as you’re getting really invested, you’re transported into the inner lair of a terrorist group plotting the assassination of a Middle Eastern Sheikh. You begin to worry about this idealistic man and the plans he has for the country and culture he loves. What will become of his singular dream when he’s riddled with bullets? Then, right as you’re worried about his future too, you shift again. Now you’re embroiled in British political controversy, with a fast-talking, cynical press agent for the prime minister trying to balance a chaotic home life with the rigors of shaping international perception. She is very good at her job despite being world-weary. She never expresses desire for a higher purpose, only a British bulldog’s fierce dedication to getting the job done. It is at this point you check your ticket stub. Have you blacked out and gone theater-hopping between the efforts of George Clooney, Nicholas Sparks and Danny Boyle? No. You’re simply in the middle of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
This delicately overreaching political romance, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and adapted for the screen by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, seems to have its heart in several places at once, but it never fully commits to one unifying idea. Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor are quietly trapped in lives that aren’t terrible—there is no villainously abusive boyfriend for the casually beautiful Blunt to run from here. What they share isn’t fish or even friendship (at least at the outset)—they both need to escape from the cages they’ve constructed, and a Sheikh’s pipe dream provides the perfect excuse. However, the fractured narrative gives us little to love about these two and their dovetailing interest in each other. McGregor brings wit and a modicum of charm to a character that is otherwise chained to a desk, and Blunt makes the best of the stereotype that she is assigned. The film would have benefited greatly from a sole focus on their development. Instead, we get the Venn diagram of their romance and the finer points of British and Middle Eastern politics.
Although the characters are well played, their support is woefully two-dimensional. There is the wise Easterner opening the eyes of the cynical Westerners, and the reptilian boss, always slippery but never truly threatening. The press secretary seems to be designed as political satire, but her role is light at best and sideshow comic relief at its most basic. Aquatic metaphors abound—take your pick from fish out of water and swimming upstream—and there are bits of nature imagery to drive the point home. But the crass symbolism serves only as a nagging reminder that none of these storylines feel well-rounded.
The writing seems at war with itself, and the viewer ends up feeling like a casualty of that battle. The cute You’ve Got Mail theme of the initial email sequence gives way to an instant messaging gag between Kristin Scott Thomas’ press secretary character and the prime minister that seems to exist for the sole purpose of showing the audience how witty she is. Sweeping voiceovers and monologues about the link between faith and fishing feel didactic, and there are several moments in the film that pull you out of the narrative altogether, leaving you to wonder if you’re supposed to believe what you’re seeing. In the midst of self-important dialogue about the tenuous relationship between East and West, it would appear that we are being asked to listen and nod as we are told the way things are and dream with our heroes about the way they could be. But the moments that make you sell your stock in this story outnumber the ones where you invest in it, and the ambition of the film ends up feeling about as plausible as salmon fishing in the Yemen.