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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

A quixotic plan to bring fishing to the desert spurs this gentle comedy

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An unlikely trio — a Yemeni sheik, a go-getting Londoner and an uptight Scottish civil servant — bond over a quixotic project in Lasse Hallström's gentle comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. 

The title is no word play or metaphor, but rather the dream of Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked). He's an avid fisherman who sees the introduction of fish (and the attendant dams and reservoirs) as a way to improve life for his less-wealthy countrymen.

Harriet (Emily Blunt), who helps manage the sheik's money in an absurdly sleek London office, posits the idea to a government fisheries expert, Dr. Fred (Ewan McGregor), who is offended by the plan. But the scheme catches the ear of the prime minister's press secretary (Kristen Scott Thomas), who is searching for "a bit of Anglo-Arab good news that doesn't involve things blowing up," and the fantasy is green-lit for reality.

The film, which has been adapted from Paul Torday's novel, has a bit of fun inverting stereotypes. In the old days, it would have been the bullheaded, myopic British who would have demanded their native pleasures be recreated in inhospitable hinterlands. Here, it is the Middle Eastern native desirous of incongruous Western pursuits. 

But this is no critique of frivolous royalty. The sheik believes fishing is a great equalizer of men from all walks of life. Fishing is about faith, that sublime, sustaining belief that a fish will bite.

Fred, though a keen fisherman, is a man of numbers and openly agnostic. That is, until the sheik's visionary project reveals Fred's dormant faith in those wispy bits of human (and fish) life that science can't prove.

The humor comes from the witty script and the various snafus, including where to acquire tens of thousands of live Atlantic salmon who might want to relocate to the desert. Interwoven through the comic silliness and the soft barbs about the inanity of politics, media and government bureaucracy are more personal threads that lend the story just a touch of the bittersweet: Both Harriet and Fred are treading water in their lives, and due for some hard choices. By the last reel, there's perhaps one complication too many (your choice: a lost soldier or the angry natives) which threatens to capsize this bit of whimsy.

But, as they say: If you build it, they will come. The sheik's project begins as an indulgence — an idea as sweet and silly as this story — and yet both the fishery and the oddball film materialize and prove winning.

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