Sony // 2011 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 17th, 2012
"When things get tricky in my life, I talk to my fish."
They say money is power and power corrupts, but after a certain point I think that's wrong. Sure, having millions might corrupt you, but having billions makes you crazy. At least that's the case if you believe some of the stories coming out of oil-rich nations where money flows as fast as oil can be pumped from their otherwise barren deserts. Gold plated everything, a car for each day of the year, even a manufactured island shaped like the name of a loved one. When there are that many zeroes to the left of the decimal point, all bets are off. Though such behavior might be a cause for anger in some, for Lasse Hallström it's the perfect backdrop for another bittersweet take on the foibles and follies of humanity. For those well-versed in the director's brand of sweet sincerity, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another triumph, though the unconverted might find it a difficult fish to land.
Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked, Syriana) loves nothing more than fly fishing for salmon. Sadly, he lives in Yemen. Of course with his money it's no deterrent, so he sends his representative (Emily Blunt, The Adjustment Bureau) to the UK government. In turn, they send their salmon expert (Ewan McGregor, Shallow Grave), and the process of damming a river begins. Not everything goes smoothly, however, as terrorists and nature are dead set against the Sheikh and his assistants.
Though his sentimentality will forever keep him out of the lists of "director's directors" (despite having a film in the Criterion collection), Lasse Hallström is nothing if not consistent. Each of his films (at least the one's I've seen) cleaves pretty closely to their source material. From that source, he gleans a bittersweet truth about humanity. That's true even of Haichi, his true-life film about a particularly loyal Japanese dog.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another opportunity for Hallström to work his magic. There's the quixotic, semi-absurd story (less absurd than Haichi, but more absurd than Chocolat). He gets to mix in a dash of romance, some personal growth, a message about love, and some environmentalism to boot! It almost goes without saying that the actors give good performances and the whole film looks impeccable. If you want to see the kind of kid-gloves material that Hallström displayed in The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen will not disappoint.
This Blu-ray won't disappoint either. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition widescreen transfer is near perfect. The whole thing looks very filmic, with deeply saturated hues and loads of fine detail. Black are appropriately dark and stable, and neither digital nor compression artifacts are a problem. The only difficulty is an occasional softness, which is not pervasive, but keeps the transfer from being completely pristine. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is king, coming through clean and clear, and balanced with composer Dario Marianelli's score. Even the surrounds get some use for atmospherics.
Bonus features are limited to two short featurettes. The first is a 13 minute behind-the-scenes look that includes the usual cast/crew interviews and footage from the film. The second is just shy of four minutes and focuses on novelist Paul Torday from whose work Simon Beaufoy's screenplay was derived.
There are two big reasons to object to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The first is political. In a world where our environment is being hampered by the utilization of fossil fuels, and the socio-economic gap between the haves and have-nots is growing every day, making a film about a Sheikh who wants to use his money to fund salmon fishing in his desert country seems woefully out of touch. Even if you buy the weird excuse that he's doing it to help his people, it's still a really weird way to do so. The counter-argument is either that this kind of story provides escape from the difficulties of everyday life, or by showing Yemeni sheikh's to be real people it helps build relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world. I would almost buy that, but the film is too focused on the individuals to defend such a position.
Politics aside, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has a more damning flaw: Hallström maintains his patented light touch throughout. While that's totally appropriate for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a film with a premise as ridiculous as this demands a more self-aware treatment. I couldn't help wishing for the deft touch that characterized The Men Who Stare at Goats. That film had an equally absurd premise (even if it was true), but the characters and the audience were completely aware of how crazy everything was, which only made it funnier and more affecting. By keeping this insane material at arm's length (I mean who builds a salmon fishing spot in Yemen?), Hallström alienates his viewers on humanistic level, and squanders the opportunity to really say something about British/Yemini politics, the insanity money can produce, or what power truly looks like in today's society.
Taken on the film's own terms, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen succeeds, but those looking for anything deeper than another Hallström feel-good flick will likely be disappointed.
Not everyone will take the bait.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13