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Thursday, April 12, 2012 11:30 pm

Fishing will hook you

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Amr Waked as Sheikh Muhammed and Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Where would we be without dreamers? Airplanes would never have been invented, the Golden Gate Bridge would never have been built and the hot dog would never have been made. Add Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) to the list of visionaries. His dream is much more simple than those endeavors. He wants to introduce salmon into the Yemen River so that fly-fishing might be introduced to his culture. No matter that the climate is all wrong where breeding cold water fish are concerned, or that this activity is as foreign to the locals as say, icebergs floating down the Yemen. But the sheikh is a special sort. He knows that there’s nothing an endless supply of money and fierce determination can’t conquer. Perhaps the biggest things he will have to contend with are the naysayers who stand in his way.

Faith is the driving force behind Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a sweet and at times magical film that overcomes more than a few contrived moments. Much of this is due to the emotional investment of the cast, who fully realize their characters. If they are to fulfill their goals, each of them is at a crossroads in which they must find the sort of faith that is second nature to the sheikh.

Only government intervention is as powerful as great wealth when it comes to getting things done quickly, and both of these factors are at play where Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is concerned. Much to his dismay, he is deputed by his superior at the British Department of Fisheries and Agriculture to assist Sheikh Muhammad and his assistant, Harriet (Emily Blunt), in their pipe dream. The philanthropist, whose money comes from vast oil reserves his family owns, views fly-fishing as a great unifier, a Zen-like activity that will help members of various cultures come together. While he has no problem convincing Jones of this, he has a harder time making him see this project is possible. Jones points out that, in addition to the climate problem, tracking down 10,000 salmon to transport and placing them in the river is no easy task. Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), press secretary to the prime minister, wants this to come to fruition as well, because the government is in desperate need of a positive event in the area of Anglo-Yemen relations. For her, the publicity around this event is pure gold.

This story is tailor-made for Hallstrom, who’s proven in the past to have a deft touch with material such as this with Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and Haichi. As in those films, he’s able to go to the edge of hokum and pull back before we go over the cliff, making contrived plot points seem, at the very least, possible, while setting a tone in which the emotions at play are sincerely rendered. This film puts Hallstrom’s talent to the test as the narrative baggage Jones and Harriet tote around is as fresh as week-old bread. While the good doctor’s bad marriage is at least feasible, the fact that Harriet’s boyfriend of three weeks has gone missing in action after being deployed to Afghanistan, putting her emotions where Jones is concerned in limbo, is such a hoary plot device that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy should be ashamed for carting it out.

Still, the film progresses at such a relaxed pace and the characters involved are so appealing, we can’t help but become engrossed in their problems. Fortunately McGregor and Blunt make for an unexpectedly appealing couple while Waked has such a calm and cool assurance about him that he infuses the story with a sense of tranquility. Sure, altering ecosystems is a long shot, but so is taking a chance on love, an endeavor we all can relate to, which is what hooks us in this delightful fish story that you shouldn’t let get away.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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