Talking Movies

April 16, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday’s acclaimed comic novel is brought to life by a top British cast, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Lasse Hallstrom sabotage the comedy.
 
Ewan McGregor is Dr. Fred Jones, a humdrum fisheries scientist who is whisked out of his quiet existence in London by an implausible fishery project in the Middle East on the insistence of his superiors; themselves bullied by Kristin Scott Thomas’ terrifying spin-doctor Patricia Maxwell, who sees an opportunity for a rare good news story about British involvement in the region. He begins working for a Yemeni Sheikh of such quiet assuredness and obviously good intentions that Fred’s misgivings slowly melt away. As he becomes more committed to the success of the scheme Fred also steadily becomes more besotted with the Sheikh’s English project manager Harriet (Emily Blunt), to the increasing displeasure of his icy wife Mary (Rachel Stirling). Harriet, however, is pining for her MIA soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison), and Fred is equally oblivious to Al-Qaeda’s murderous objections to the Sheikh’s westernising dream…
 
There is some wonderful comedy in this film, a highlight being Fred’s patronising doodling on a whiteboard to explain to Harriet how ridiculous the whole project is. But there aren’t enough jokes to really make this work as a comedy. McGregor is on subdued form as the straight man, with irritating references to Asperger’s thrown in to make his awkwardness part of a new cliché zeitgeist. Blunt effortlessly moves from casually charming to emotionally raw, and Amr Waked is on fine form as the charismatic Sheikh who equates fishing with universal brotherhood, but the best scenes come from Scott Thomas’ domineering Press Secretary. All her scenes are delightful; whether she’s harassing the P.M. with IMs re-shuffling his Cabinet for him, terrorising her minions with an instruction to find a good news story from the Middle East in 60 minutes, or verbally abusing her own children.
 
A bad adaptation sends you scurrying to the book in frustration or bewilderment – looking for more depth or to discover if the original story was poor. Beaufoy’s script made me read the book, which he’s infuriatingly reversed in many respects; just as he ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal Q & A into Slumdog Millionaire. Torday’s dry comedy and political satire is sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivers only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife is hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent here; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion are all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminate in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which should elicit groans…
 
This is a prime example of a film that is structurally as sound as a bell, and therefore excruciatingly predictable viewing.
 
2/5

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