Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -.2 Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

The Sheikh, Fred, and Harriett looking over plans in Yemen.

© CBS Films

Director Lasse Hallström again presents us with a whimsical film, though not quite as fanciful as his Chocolat, even though faith is a major theme. The plot outline might remind you of that of the wonderful Zorba the Greek in that Ewan McGregor plays the stuck in the mud scientist Dr. Alfred Jones whose prosaic outlook on life is transformed by his contact with a charismatic man. Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) lives part of the year at his palatial estate located on a Scottish loch where he has grown to love the sport of salmon fishing. Why not, he asks, build a hydroelectric dam in Yemen that will benefit his people and at the same time enable him to enjoy his sport? All he need do is import a large batch of the fish to the stream. And so he sends an email to the British government seeking its help.

When the message reaches the computer of fisheries expert Dr. Jones, Fred to his friends, his immediate response is that the scheme is “preposterous.” There matters might have remained, except that the personal assistant to the Prime Minister Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) reads the email and sees this as a good way for the PM to mend fences with the Middle East and with the British public. Soon high-powered management consultant Harriett Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is talking with Jones, but he again declares the project is impossible, and declines, thinking that his guesstimate that the project would cost $50 will put an end to it. However, the Sheikh readily agrees (it’s always nice to own a few oil wells). Only when his superior tells him that he must cooperate or else does the reluctant expert consent—and it does help that his salary is doubled.

Fred, as Dr. Jones is called in private, soon bonds with the Sheikh, the latter who is indeed a good fly fisherman, and his relationship to Harriett slowly warms up. Each has a relationship with another—Fred is married to a woman who is more interested in furthering her career than in their marriage, and Harriett has a fairly new lover who has just been dispatched with his unit to Afghanistan.

Fans of movie romances can see where all this is leading, but the ride is an enjoyable one. For me the most interesting aspect of the film is the relationship of the two men (though admittedly Kristin Scott Thomas steals every scene that she is involved in!), the Muslim sheikh portrayed as the man of faith who inspires the skeptical scientist to reconsider his outlook, especially in regard to the preposterous project in which they are engaged. An especially good shot showing Fred’s turnaround is the overhead one in which he is crossing a bridge with a crowd, and then reverses his direction and has to struggle against the flow, very much like the salmon that must swim upstream in order to spawn.

Adapted by Simon Beaufoy (writer of Slumdog Millionaire) from a British best-selling book by Paul Torday, this is not a profound film, such as Zorba the Greek, but it is a very pleasant and satisfying one, far superior to most so-called Hollywood romantic comedies, even if, as some complain, most of the political satire has been dropped.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. What kind of a person is Dr. Fred Jones when we first meet him? For those who have read or seen Zorba the Greek compare him to Basil.

2. What is Sheikh Muhammed like? How is his depiction a refreshing change in the way Muslims are so often depicted in film and viewed by the public?

3. What are the motives of the two women in regard to the Sheikh’s project. How do these change, at least for one of them?

4. What do you think Sheikh Muhammed means by faith? How is he right in that even scientists must have a type of faith? Compare his concept of faith with that of the writers of the Letter to the Hebrews. At what point do we see that Fred has become a man of “faith” ?

5. How did you feel at the end of the film?