There’s a hallowed Hollywood tradition that times of financial hardship are supposed to be Golden Ages for romantic comedy films. The Great Depression was the heyday of the classic screwball comedy, to cite the most obvious example. So where are all the well-made, memorable rom/coms of the recession that is now allegedly sputtering to an end? Who will be remembered as the Preston Sturges of our era?
Judging by what I’ve seen in recent years, it won’t be anybody out of Hollywood. I can’t think of a single contemporary actor/actress pairing that even remotely approaches the kind of chemistry that we associate with Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night, Fonda and Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Tracy and Hepburn in half a dozen movies or even more recently with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
Maybe those days are just over, but what movie fan wants to give up believing that it can happen again? Right now, it seems that the place to look for a spark of hope is across the Pond. At least the current crop of youngish British cinema stars includes people who don’t induce the instant desire to run and hide. And some of them, when paired off, actually do seem able to persuade the viewer that they have romantic potential.
Such is the case with a relatively low-budget English movie that is proving to be the sleeper “hit” among the adult demographic in theatres at present, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It has many things going for it: deft, light-handed direction from Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) and an outstandingly witty and engaging script by Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy. The dialogue is fresh and funny most of the time and gently heart-tugging when it needs to be. Sitting through this movie will remind you of just how entertaining rom/coms used to be in the glory days of the silver screen.
Then there are the principals. Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Big Fish, Moulin Rouge!) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria, The Adjustment Bureau) play the improbable pair who turn their lives over to the grandiose dream of a fey Yemeni sheikh who will spare no expense to build a gigantic dam to bring the sport of fly-fishing to a dry riverbed in his homeland. Blunt and McGregor have charm to spare, and together onscreen, they seem to be having too much fun to be allowed.
McGregor’s Dr. Alfred Jones – inventor of the sheikh’s favorite dry-fly, the Wooly Jones – is a top fisheries biologist consulting for the British government, a diehard science geek and a believer in only the prosaic and the provable. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage (they have sex with their jammies on, immediately after which his wife says, “That ought to do you for a while”), admits to having no sense of humor and talks to the fish in his koi pond for psychotherapy. Blunt’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the sheikh’s representative in the UK, does have a sense of humor and derives much amusement from the stuffy, reluctant scientist whom she recruits to assist with what he regards as a completely loony and impossible project. At one point she accuses Jones of having Asperger’s Syndrome, and he doesn’t deny that, either.
But as their relationship very slowly develops – it takes them forever, and a personal crisis on Harriet’s part, even to get to using first names – we become aware that there is more to both of these characters than meets the eye. The hypercompetent, sophisticated Harriet is hiding her anxiety over a newly acquired boyfriend who has gone missing while on Special Forces assignment in Afghanistan, while Fred reveals depths of poetic sensitivity and human decency that only show themselves clearly when he’s midstream in hip-waders. It’s the charismatic sheikh, wonderfully played by Amr Waked (Syriana), who nails “Dr. Alfred” as secretly a man of faith and philosophy like himself – as are, in his view, all fishermen by definition.
A running strand of political satire lends substance to the plot and elevates it above rom/com fluff, most of it supplied by the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Gosford Park) as the prime minister’s press officer. Forget about paying attention to anybody else in the cast when Scott Thomas is onscreen; she is the consummate brisk, self-satisfied, take-no-prisoners bureaucrat, manipulating everyone and everything around her. Hearing that there are two million anglers in Britain, she makes the utterly erroneous assumption that they will be very pleased to know that 10,000 wild salmon are to be captured from native waterways and flown to the Yemeni desert to bring the sheikh’s scheme to fruition. After throwing the whole weight and prestige of the government behind the project, she barely bats an eye when the political fallout turns out the opposite of her expectations. She’s really quite funny.
Also in the mix, and supplying a darker bit of drama, are a group of Yemeni jihadists who regard the sheikh’s dam-building plan – ostensibly intended to bring in sport fishing, but really meant to irrigate a desert region to support agriculture – as a sacrilegious attempt to Westernize their country. Acts of terror ensue, the true power of the dry-fly is demonstrated and new approaches to cross-cultural understanding are imagined by the end.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen can be enjoyed as a tale of one man’s quixotic vision and the magical things that happen to those who let themselves be swept up in it, against all logic. Or you can just sit back and soak up the kind of elegantly written, caustically flirtatious repartee between mismatched characters fated to end up together that has been much missed in Hollywood movies of late. Either way, it’s one of the most pleasurable cinematic experiences to come down the pike in a long time.