Review: ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ unsuccessfully tries to duplicate Working Title formula

TORONTO – A romantic comedy or dramedy featuring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt is never going to be a box office slam dunk.  Yes, the two Brits are incredibly talented actors, but they haven’t had much success as cinematic leads. However, when you are adapting a best selling novel you often hope the notoriety of your source material can help overcome your lack of celebrity starpower.  Unfortunately, that may not be the case for Lasse Halstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” which debuted at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival on Saturday night.

Based on Paul Torday’s novel and brought to the screen by Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), “Salmon Fishing” finds a seemingly mismatched pair, investment manager Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) and UK government fisheries expert Fred Jones (McGregor), thrown together to help introduce salmon into the manmade waterways of Yemen.  One of the country’s Sheiks (Amr Waked) sees salmon fishing as a way to help his people both spiritually and agriculturally.  The scheme is pushed by the U.K.’s ruling party press secretary, Bridget Maxwell (a scene-stealing and over the top Kristin Scott Thomas), who only sees the positive press a British/Arab collaboration will bring as she tries to combat the constant stream of bad news from the country’s involvement in Afghanistan.   That’s almost a red herring though as the salmon fishing project soon takes a backsteat to the “you can see it coming a mile away” romance between Fred and Harriet.  Complicating matters is Fred’s passionless marriage and Harriet’s faithfulness to her military boyfriend who may or may not have been killed in a terrorist raid.  If this all seems overly complicated for a romantic comedy, well, you’re right and that gets to the heart of the matter.

The big problem with “Salmon Fishing” is that it doesn’t really know what sort of movie it wants to be.  On the one hand, the relationship between Fred and Harriet seems right out of any Working Title romantic comedy from the past 15 years.  Fine.  In theory, Blunt and McGregor are more than capable of pulling that off.  On the flip side, the political shenanigans are so over the top they seem like they are in a completely different film.  It’s almost as if Halstrom (far removed from his “Chocolat” glory days) directed Thomas one way and took Blunt and McGregor in a completely different direction. 

Moreover, the original novel found Fred’s character much older and you don’t understand why he’s so buttoned up most of the time (when his wife accuses him of having a “midlife crisis” during the film you do a double take at the still youthful McGregor).  The book was also much more of a satirical comedy in the vein of “In the Loop” mocking the bureaucratic shenanigans of the government (obviously where Thomas’ comic foil comes in), but Beaufoy and Halstrom have made the romance oh so serious helping to throw off the entire picture.

On the positive side, Halstrom and his production team have succeeded in crafting a glossy dramedy that you’d assume was much more expensive than its reported $12 million plus budget.  That could certainly help its acquisition chances, but with Lionsgate UK and BBC Films already landing the UK rights (no doubt it’s biggest potential market), it’s hard to imagine a U.S. distributor throwing out major dollars for a film that will mostly appeal to just older women. 

Someday you may catch “Salmon Fishing” on HBO or Showtime or a plane and think “that’s cute,” but if you were a big fan of Torday’s original tome, however, you may find yourself very disappointed.

Look for continuing coverage from the Toronto Film Festival on HitFix all this week.  For year round entertainment commentary follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.