Salmon Fishing in the Yemen might be the gentlest movie ever made involving a political scandal, an eccentric sheik, an M.I.A. soldier and a slow-burning romance between two people as attractive as Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Think Wag the Dog without the bite. That's right: Director Lasse Hallström has managed to make a Barry Levinson movie look positively scathing.
Lives are saved, love is lost and a soldier goes to war. But the most suspenseful element is whether Alfred (McGregor), a bureaucratic fussbucket from the Fisheries Department, will ever get on a first-name basis with Harriet (Blunt), who's been charged by her employer (the sheik) to transport a sustainable population of salmon to the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen. It's cookie-cutter stuff: Alfred and Harriet are nearly opposites in temperament, but they're thrown together by circumstance and, surprise, they seem to work well together! The sheik thinks that if he can get salmon swimming in the country's rivers, he'll improve the economy, the land and the lives of the people who live there. What a guy.
The occasional laughs come without any nasty nips of satire or cruelty. When Alfred bumps into a wall, Hallström is sure to cut to Harriet having a chuckle so that we know it's OK to do the same, and at least once, Alfred helpfully explains he's making a joke so Harriet and the audience know to laugh. We wouldn't want to have any fun at the expense of these lovely people on screen; we must be sure to laugh only when it's permitted.
And laugh you just might—Hallström is good at this. He eases in and out of scenes with shots that are wide enough to let you know where you are without announcing themselves, and he fades out of them so carefully that you're not sure how long you've spent in a certain location. In a movie so obviously structured around a single uplifting outcome, Hallström's ability to keep the gears from creaking is masterful. It may sound backhanded to say he's masterful the way a good daytime talk show host is masterful, but if it's true, he's the Oprah of directors.
There's not much he can do to save the movie from its simple central metaphor—that, like salmon, we must swim against the current to lead valuable lives—and he probably doesn't want to. The shot of McGregor turning on his heels to fight against pedestrian traffic is pristine and effective, but it needn't be paired later with a shot of a fish doing the same thing, literalizing the idea beyond credibility. It all makes for a paradoxical piece of fluff: The only way to appreciate this movie about going against the current is to value how effortlessly it flows in exactly the direction you'd expect.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gently up the stream."