Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen? That’s a joke right? A sort of ironic or metaphorical title that represents the films story in a less than literal way? Well yes and no. While this latest film from vastly underrated veteran director Lasse Hallstrom (Best known in my mind for the amazing Unfinished Life) and scribe sensation Simon Beaufoy (Best known in my mind for the appallingly overrated Slumdog) certainly tells its story with plenty of winks and nudges, imbuing the affair with an incredibly appealing sense of irreverence, neither are cynical enough in their approach to ever cast the film completely as a joke and this may well be to its detriment.
Regardless of whether or not it’s a true story (and it certainly seems to be less true even than Fargo, a famously fictional tale.), Salmon Fishing is a tall tale (You couldn’t make most of this stuff up: fifty-five million pounds, the foiling of an arab assassination attempt with a good right handed cast to the ear? Really?). It’s farcical in the most literal of senses and when faced with such a farcical tale as this one, in both core concept and narrative minutia, it is important for the film to roll its eyes a little along with the audience so as not to lose them. Here though the creative pair behind the picture actually perfect the approach, to the point that it was what won me into the film; so the films latter departures into the serious side of this surreal venture still came as something of a disappointment.
For the most part though Salmon Fishing is the kind of witty screwball picture that we haven’t so often seen on the screen since the sixties and as that is a genre that I tend to adore I had a lot of fun with this: the lines all got laughs, the situation itself got more and at it’s core were these two characters that are as much swept along in the stream of it as we were, which makes you feel involved. Interestingly in terms of the script the film retains this tone all the way through to the close, even though it seems on the surface to take that more mature path I mentioned earlier; the banter still bounces in the denouement even though the direction is much more sallow, causing something of a disconcerting effect where we in the audience are unsure whether to laugh or cry. This isn’t here as a criticism though, I actually think it only goes to prove just how much of the comedy stems from the cast and their chemistry: Ewan McGregor with Emily Blunt and Kristen Scott Thomas with the camera. It is their delivery that ultimately decides what emotion we feel and which jokes hit home – not the reference, zany sound effect or record scratch – and that is both as it should be and how it once was.
All that though is not to say that this is an old-fashioned film (though it will probably be best received by an elderly audience) as Hallstrom actually utilises a whole host of modern technologies and techniques in the film to surprisingly great effect. Having emails, instant messages and Google maps popping up on the screen is usually a distracting gimmick at best and groan inducing at worst, but here the inventiveness adds to the energy, helping with the pacing by allowing for unadorned comedic assaults to break up the plotting. These elements also serve a strong purpose within said plot; the film may seem on the surface to be about fishing, religion or romance but it’s actually much more interested in the way industry inserts itself into modern life. These characters are all ruled by their jobs, by paperwork, by PR, memorandums and faximilies but most of all by politics and this is something of a contemporary issue. There isn’t any great message at the core of the movie, it mostly evokes these things for a laugh, but it is always educational to take a look at something like this second Gulf War from another perspective, even if it is one of office politics.
There is an attempt made to add some philosophy to the affair, especially through the character of the Sheik who basically serves the role once taken by the Magic Negro, the wizened old African American whose unfaulting demeanour and deep wisdom allow them to watch over those lesser, more important westerners. Though this may seem more than a little old-fashioned these days there are solid narrative and emotional reasons for the archetype’s existence that lay outside of the racial minefield it unfortunately evokes today and this iteration of it is charmingly played by Amr Wakeed. It’s probably a pretty controversial thing to say, but I can’t help feeling that the Minstrels and Magic Negroes – as demeaning as they were and are – probably helped ingratiate African-Americans into the more fearful Western spheres and so a seemingly wise and peaceful Arab may be just what that racist, elderly audience needs to see so they will stop staring and judging. But I digress…
Lasse, Simon and the Sheik squeeze plenty of metaphorical ideas out of fishing, faith among the most popular of the lot, and while these work for the most part they lack some potency and inventiveness whereas the humour has all the punch that you could want. The final few scenes of the film are especially egregious in the way that they stretch out the requisite sadness past the required length for the sake of the redeeming twist, but it all ends on a sweet note, one that had many elderly ladies in the audience getting teary eyed, so perhaps it is just my cynicism that stopped me from enjoying this part.
Jokes traditionally follow a formula of multiple parts: the set-up, the turn around and the punchline and while Salmon Fishing certainly follows the first two, the way that it softens in the finale shows that it is in fact a serious film at heart; the comedy just grey scales to cover the pink, deep flesh beneath and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, the opposite in fact. You will get as many good laughs from this as you would a straight comedy and since these are technically just the cherry on top – to mix my culinary similes – the iffyness of the more than serviceable story, meaning and emotion the riffing between bits – becomes negligible; the side dish is worth the price of entry alone. So yeah, you’ll laugh, you’ll have your heart warmed and even if it is more the warmth of a setting sun on your skin than that of a raging fire, it’s enjoyable enough to warrant going out of the house to get. It certainly warrants its current, controversial place in the IMDb ‘Top 500 Films’ to my mind; i’m not joking.