Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is a spectacularly stupid exercise in pandering

Film Rating: D

You know what I love about fishing?  Subtlety. 

It is a quiet sport, one based on patience and discipline; it requires both a nuance of craft and a stillness of mind, which is precisely why fishing is such an attractive activity to many.  With a rod in one’s hand, in a boat or in waders, where else can one find such mental peace and clarity? 

Not in Lasse Hallström’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” for starters.  The film claims to have a love and understanding of fishing, but it is an impostor, for it has not a subtle bone in its spectacularly stupid body.  Every plot point is loudly telegraphed, every character trait shouted at the camera, every message or theme delivered in monologue, every second of music obvious and manipulative, every piece of development outlined with small, easily digestible phrases, and so on and so on.  Combined with flat characters, terrible comedic interludes, and a number of plot contrivances so ill-advised they border on morally reprehensible, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” displays startlingly naked contempt for the audience’s intellect.  The film fishes not with grace and precision, but with dynamite, and the results are proportionally disastrous.  Continue reading after the jump…

A wealthy Yemeni Sheikh wants to introduce Salmon fishing to his country, and the British government sees it as an opportunity to build positive public relations with the Middle East.  But the Yemen is a completely unfit environment for salmon, and the fishery scientist hired to the project, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), refuses to attempt such a preposterous idea.  Don’t worry: a few speeches on the value of ‘faith’ from the Sheikh – along with the promise of a large paycheck – brings Jones around soon enough.  Or it might be the smart, pretty woman handling the Shiekh’s finances, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who convinces Jones.  After all, because Harriet lacks a Y chromosome and Alfred does not, it is the film’s categorical imperative that they become a couple, even though he’s married and she’s in love with a soldier.  Again, don’t let such stirring dramatic roadblocks bother you: even if it takes a series of increasingly contrived twists and the world’s most morbid, morally unsound love-triangle to get us there, these crazy kids will find happiness soon enough. 

In fact, trite contrivances are the main form of narrative expression in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen;” supposedly based on a ‘true story,’ little of the plot feels like it could actually have been sourced from real life.  When our characters aren’t being confronted with ridiculous challenges to pad the film to feature length, they are blessed with miraculous deus ex machinas.  When the third act isn’t quite shamelessly manipulative enough, a dark, out-of-left field tragedy is thrown into the mix to give the ending a hollow semblance of profundity.  Or my favorite example: when an angry Yemeni citizen tries to kill the Sheikh (for reasons that essentially amount to “Arabs who aren’t rich and fluent in English must be violent Jihadists”), Alfred disarms the gunman with a strategic cast from a fly-fishing rod.  Not even Indiana Jones’ heroics are that astonishing.   

Hackneyed plot mechanics can only be expected of a script this stunningly stupid.  Writer Simon Beaufoy’s dialogue is obvious, forced, and insultingly pandering at every turn.  The film has no subtext whatsoever, for Beaufoy puts every theme, message, and abstract concept into his character’s mouths; the job of a filmmaker is to show, not tell, but rather than let us experience a journey of faith or the building of community, the dialogue beats such ideas into the audience’s head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Character work is even worse.  Beaufoy doesn’t trust the fine ensemble to embody their personality traits or flaws, so he has the actors shout them at us.  In one of Harriet’s first scenes, poor Emily Blunt is made to passionately exclaim “I am shy!” as though she is revealing great Shakespearean insight; Ewan McGregor must ‘deepen’ his character by explaining he has Asperger’s Syndrome, despite displaying no qualifying symptoms from start to finish; and the Sheikh, worried the audience isn’t picking up on Alfred and Harriet’s chemistry, winkingly proclaims “you two have more in common than you think!”

It’s a shame, because even amidst the inadequacy of the material, McGregor and Blunt do some really fine work here (at this point, I will go out of my way to see anything McGregor stars in).  In the few scenes when the writing calms down and simply lets them interact as organic human beings, the film is actually rather pleasant.  Those moments are few and far between, however, and the main story is punctuated by a torturously obnoxious sub-plot involving the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary (a scenery-chewing Kristin Scott Thomas, determined to drive at least half the audience to intensive therapy).  Lasse Hallström’s unfocused direction and distracting visual ticks don’t improve matters, though Terry Stacy’s cinematography is a gorgeous treat. 

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a profoundly dumb movie, and my contempt for the film is matched only by the film’s disdain for its audience.  Trusting the viewer to interpret subtlety, nuance, and layered naturalism is always preferable to spoon-feeding the story.  It’s the same in the world of fishing.  One can only hope to make a catch by respecting the creatures and the calm of their environment, imitating the particulars of their existence to lure them in.  But these filmmakers are not good fisherman, and like a salmon scared away by a group of loud, drunken buffoons, I’ll keep swimming until I find something better.    

"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is currently playing at the Landmark Esquire in Denver.  

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