"It was really not about the fishing at all," a character says near the end of Lasse Hallström's slight but appealing comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. He's not kidding; if ever a movie was hung on a metaphor, this is it. Salmon fishing in the Yemen, it turns out, is no easy trick; neither is love.
Based on a novel by Paul Torday (told almost entirely via email, memos and letters), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seems as if it should be a satire but is, at its heart, a love story. Emily Blunt plays Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the London-based assistant to a Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) who dreams of bringing salmon fishing to his people. Instructed to make this happen, Harriet consults Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a charmingly sweater-vested fisheries expert who thinks it's all a rather silly idea.
Enter Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the ultra-efficient press secretary to the prime minister. She's looking for a feel-good story — and suddenly the project is under way, with our trio making forays to Scotland and Yemen as Alfred and Harriet smile sweetly at each other. Eventually the two start wearing nicely color-coordinated outfits, so we know what's coming up.
Things are made mildly complicated by Alfred being married (his wife, played by Rachael Stirling, is written as a two-dimensional harpy) and Harriet having a boyfriend (but he's conveniently in the military and not around). All gets sorted out in conventional fashion.
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McGregor and Blunt are charming, particularly in a scene in which he walks into a glass wall and she lets out an enchanting, seemingly spontaneous giggle, but you wish they had a less rote story to enact. Only Scott Thomas, biting off all her sentences like a piranha, rescues Salmon Fishing from being a by-the-numbers romantic comedy; too bad the redoubtable Ms. Maxwell didn't have her own movie.