With attractive actors in flattering resort wear, serenely beautiful outdoor locations and romance that never gets much hotter than a literal roll in the sheets, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen sometimes resembles a medication commercial more than the fancy-free romance it's going for. It goes down easy and is mostly very likable, but for both it's actors and it's audience it's about as challenging as a lively round of shuffleboard. It might lull you into its amiable rhythm, but it might put you to sleep as well.
That's not to say it's a slog--with actors as fundamentally appealing as Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles, its got charm on its side, and they strike up a nice rapport as two people brought into the unlikely challenge to set up a salmon fishing stream in the Yemen desert. Blunt's Harriet works for the company that manages the fortune of Yemeni Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked), and when she tries to talk McGregor's fisheries expert Alfred Jones into the project, the idea makes its way to the Prime Minister's sharp-eyed press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas). She senses a good PR opportunity about East-West relations, so off Fred and Harriet go on a foolhardy mission costing millions so that a single sheikh can fish for salmon in the middle of his desert country.
It's an insane and fairly cynical backdrop for the quirky romance that follows, and though Waked brings an intriguing appeal to the sheikh, the script's argument that the fishing project is in fact a boon to all Yemeni people never holds water. But Simon Beaufoy's zippy script wisely sticks mostly with Fred and Harriet, two very ordinary people thrown into a strange project, and of course falling for each other along the way. It's a little complicated, since Fred is stuck in a loveless marriage and Harriet just started up a nice romance with a soldier (Tom Mison) now deployed to Afghanistan, but just as salmon instinctively know to swim upstream, everybody knows how this story ends from the moment they glimpse the candy-colored poster.
Director Lasse Hallstrom knows his way around smooth, pseudo-prestigious romances like this one, and Salmon Fishing is happily more in the mode of Chocolat than his previous, dreadful Dear John. With cinematographer Terry Stacey he makes both the Scottish highlands and the Moroccan desert (subbing for Yemen) look sumptuous, and allows the actors to play out the scenes and suggest nuances that the script doesn't go near. Thomas's comic performance is a little high-pitched and one-dimensional but perfectly used amid the sentiment, and McGregor and Blunt add some complicated details to their relationship, and make it somehow believable that a well-off finance gal like her would fall for an uptight, literally humorless scientist like him.
They don't really make movies like Salmon Fishing anymore, but when they did in the 90s, it was Hallstrom who made them, and in that way the movie feels like a pleasant throwback. With plot twists that are hard to swallow and a general aversion to any real conflict, it's a movie with a flow that's easy to slip into , and just as easy to slip out of and forget once it's through.