Cinematically Pure and Pleasant: A Review of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”
If you seek a pleasant film experience that isn’t muddied-up in cheesy pop music, dramatic dialogue, slow-motion emotional breakdowns, and otherwise trivial we-will-do-our-best-to-make-you-cry-and-therefore-feel-something constructs, Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the film for you. In two words, the movie is both pleasant and pure—it never tries to be anything it’s not. It never seeks to defy the reality of pure human emotion. Like a movie-detox ridding you of excess emotional baggage, angst-toxins, and artificial feelings, this film in its purity and simplicity is like a cinematic cleanse leaving you with clarity of thought, a newfound fondness for the sport of salmon fishing, and an attachment to the ever-charismatic and equally un-emotive scot Alfred Jones brought to life by the charming Ewan McGregor. The characters are complex, the plot is layered, and the political unrest the film acknowledges is too tricky to solve in a 111 minute long film, but despite its complexities, the emotions the film illicit, however many, are pure, human, and relatable.
The film’s plot is unique—uniquely quirky and unwaveringly British—as its key characters strive to introduce Salmon fishing to the Yemen. This task, as we quickly learn, is daunting—the Yemen is hot and dry; salmon prefer conditions that are cold and wet—but by some strand of fate, faith, or movie magic—it becomes plausible. The two characters at odds about its plausibility are direct contrasts of each other. We have the scientifically-minded, mildly pessimistic, Alfred Jones whose driving emotion is frustration which paves the way for sarcastic humor and an I’m-smarter-than-you attitude towards his antagonist (who isn’t his antagonist for long)—Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). Harriet is not scientifically driven, she is socially driven, and for every emotion that Alfred hides or masks in sarcasm, Harriet exudes in want, worry, and sobs. Her freshly-termed boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison), after three weeks together, is called to Afghanistan and quickly pegged MIA. Too much for Harriet to handle, she briefly abandons the salmon project to mourn and worry alone in her flat, while Alfred—now eager and believing in the project he initially denounced—brings her a pate sandwich, and with it, a slow-to-grow key to her heart.
Some truths are driven too hard. The film makes it painfully clear that Harriet and Alfred are initially opposites. From his colorless shirts and ties, to her floral dresses and bright sweaters, as well as her passion-driven and overthought romance with Robert contrasted with Alfred’s failing marriage with wife Mary (Rachael Stirling), we understand all too well that Alfred and Harriet are opposites. Just in case we weren’t certain about Alfred’s marital woes from the couple’s communication issues and their early-and-separate bedtimes, a scene in which Alfred clings to an umbrella in the pouring rain helping his wife to the car as he spouts excitedly, “We could have a baby!” that goes completely unacknowledged by his wife, is immediately followed by an abrupt cut to a sex scene between the unhappily betrothed that lacks any semblance of love or faint passion. We get it.
The same is true when the mystically-wise Sheik (Amr Waked) who is fronting the cash for this salmon project due to both his love for fishing and his native country, tells Harriet and Alfred after peering into their souls, “Maybe you are not so different as you think.” We don’t need the spoken acknowledgment—their growing fondness and chemistry, as well as their mutual relationship-woes, indicate that they do, in fact, have a thing or two in common. But, despite the film’s over-acknowledgment of truths already established, and its perhaps too-obvious demonstration of themes, the emotions felt by McGregor’s character are brilliantly under-expressed.
Throughout the film, Harriet and others peg Alfred as emotionless. Harriet calls him “unfeeling” and compares him to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, but what is truly marveling is the way that the audience has an impeccable sense of what Alfred’s feeling despite the lack of grand physical indicators. He doesn’t breakdown—he doesn’t sob, or destroy things, or thrash around—but we know his frustrations. We understand his feelings in the subtleties. His silence when his wife rejects him is stronger than spouted angry words would be. His muttering to himself as he feeds his fish, his quiet glance at his shoes when he’s wounded, and his sarcastic rebuttals all indicate his unrest. His likability is wrapped up in his gentleness, accidental humor, and dead-pan delivery. “I don’t know anyone who goes to church anymore,” he tells Harriet, “on Sundays we go to Target.” The palpable angst written on his face in hushed, restrained hues as he wants but can’t have Harriet for so many reasons is devastating, but it’s a quiet, manageable devastation for the audience. They are left to feel just enough, but not too much. The film toes the line of emotional implausibility without ever crossing it.
So often in films such as this one, where a love story exists, emotions are overwrought. The films depend on sappy pop music, outlandish dialogue, and grand romantic gestures to make the audience feel and therefore “connect” to the story, but it’s artificial. It’s the drawn-out pop song that makes you cry. It’s a slow motion montage to Chantal Kreviazuk’s “Feel’s Like Home,” or a sobbing character’s wall-slide and dip into a twisted fetal position on the hospital floor. What makes Salmon Fishing in the Yemen a refreshing and pleasant film experience isn’t the fact that it’s a perfect film—it’s far from perfect. There are loose strands, and forcibly woven plots such as, for instance, the build-up to Act Three and the needs-to-be-acknowledged social unrest between the Yemen and the western world that is poorly developed by an anti-climatic assassination attempt that falls flat with little ripple effect. There’s a few too many ah-ha moments, and coincidence for coincidence sake, but what the film achieves despite these “misses” is emotional purity. When the film is sad, it is simply sad. When it is happy, it’s happy. The movie deals with serious life struggles—failing marriages, MIA lovers, middle eastern hostilities with the western world—and yet, it doesn’t make you suffer with them. You feel for the characters and identify with their struggle, but the movie doesn’t ask you to fall for them by tricking you into crying or feeling anything for them based on false crutches. As an audience member, you are left with a feeling of plausibility. This is a story that could transfer to your life despite your lack of interest or knowledge in the sport of salmon fishing. The experience of watching Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is as pleasant as the escapist qualities of film aim to be. It’s escapist while being relatable. It’s true while being optimistic. The emotions are as pure as the Shiek’s unwavering faith which allows you to ignore the filmic faults or the cheesy metaphor that fish naturally swim upstream, and makes even the harshest cynic believe for even the faintest second, that people naturally do too.
Posted on March 13, 2012, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The A's and tagged Amr Waked, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, indie, Lasse Hallstrom, Rachel Stirling, Review, Samon Fishing in the Yemen, Tom Mison. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.