Viewed July 18, 2012
On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)
Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.
The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.
The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.
But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.
But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.
More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)
Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.
In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?
This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!
My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?
I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.
As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.