Communication, politics and popular culture.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen left me reeling

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(SPOILER ALERT: This review doesn’t hold back!)

There is something decidedly fishy about the absurd, hopelessly sappy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

The film tells the story of a sheik who “believes his passion for the peaceful pastime of salmon fishing can enrich the lives of his people, and he dreams of bringing the sport to the not so fish-friendly desert. Willing to spare no expense, he instructs his representative to turn the dream into reality, an extraordinary feat that will require the involvement of Britain’s leading fisheries expert who happens to think the project unachievable.”

A plot summary like this would normally cause me to swim upstream as vigorously as possible in the opposite direction, but alas, I was convinced to attend the movie by a romantic soul. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the “romantic comedy” in the first place so I may have some built-in biases. Truth is, I might as well have a “No Chick Flicks” bumper sticker, I’m so opposed to this genre.

What really bothered me about this movie though, were the underlying messages and stereotypes. The movie might seem innocent, but don’t get reeled into believing it is.

Let’s get it straight here–the impossibly handsome sheik loves fly-fishing so he hands over large wads of cash. He’s indulging a ridiculous dream of building his own salmon fishery, no matter how costly, dangerous or wasteful. To try and smooth this over with the audience, the writers slip in a sequence explaining the project will also help create arable land so that people can grow food, blah, blah, blah. At this point, things are starting to smell.

The benevolent dictator

The dark, bearded sheik (Amr Waked) is a truly sinister caricature.  A super wealthy but gentle, matchmaking fellow, the sheik can write a cheque for $50M to build a salmon hatchery with the snap of his fingers, all the while dispensing words of wisdom about faith and charity to the hapless scientist, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), portrayed as browbeaten by his successful wife and a failure in the bedroom.

As the three main characters sit by the fire after dinner at the sheik’s castle drinking tea, Emily Blunt’s character (Harriet) is melancholy due to her soldier boyfriend’s MIA status in Afghanistan. The sheik comments paternalistically about recognizing sadness in a woman due to his “many wives.” Harriet blushes demurely. Someone stop me before I gag.

The lovely, non-threatening virgin 

Which brings me to our heroine Harriet. She is, of course, the assistant to the sheik and her job appears to be to indulge his every whim (except the obvious–it’s a romantic comedy, reality does not have a place here) and she does a bang-up job. She remains stoic, unquestioning and loyal to the sheik even when Alfred ridicules the salmon project. She is, at the same time, smitten by her soldier boyfriend (although she has only known him for three weeks before he disappears while on a mission in Afghanistan) and stays home in her pajamas weeping uncontrollably, sitting by the phone and not eating while waiting for word about his status.

Until, of course, Alfred shows up and convinces her to return to work, eat some take-out duck and drink a tiny bottle of wine (I kid you not–mini-bar sized–between the two of them…WTH??)

There are plenty of jokes about Harriet’s hyphenated last name (damn feminists), as she struts around in 8 inch heels, steps in as a Mandarin Chinese translator and most inexplicably, is permitted to appear in Yemen with her head uncovered (women aren’t oppressed in Yemen at all, just a nasty rumour). She is also wildly efficient, although seems to spend most of the time idly admiring Alfred’s fly-tying skills while wearing clingy pants, sleeping in the tents alongside the all-male work crew and finally, swimming with Alfred in a flimsy white nightgown that mysteriously reveals nothing naughty even when soaking wet. Can you say, “virginal”?

“They said they would call if there was news. They haven’t called, so I guess there’s no news,” says Blunt woefully as Alfred stands by. With lines like that, we can understand why he has fallen in love with her…hook, line and sinker, as they say.

The bitchy, career women

Maybe I’m overly sensitive but the two career-oriented women in this movie are shown as scheming, rude, selfish bitches who treat their husbands, children and co-workers with contempt. Compared to Harriet, who is sweetly following orders and looking gorgeous in every scene, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), as the press secretary to the British Prime Minister, looks Botox-ed, with her hair coiffed stiffly as she puffs away on a cigarette. She spews raunchy fishing “rod” jokes and even drops the f-bomb with her kids. Her evil PR plan is to distract the public with a fluffy, good news story while the suicide bombers are blowing things up in Afghanistan.

Alfred’s wife is depicted as greedy, frigid and callous as she announces that her job will take her to Geneva for six weeks, but she’ll be back for visits. If the tables were turned, would this even have garnered a second thought? I couldn’t help but notice the badly drawn eyebrows and the non-flattering wardrobe in each of her appearances, as she whines about lost income and her husband’s pension when he gets caught up in the project and quits his job. Despite the mounting evidence of his infatuation with Harriett, and the insinuation about Alfred’s lack of skill in the bedroom, she later texts him desperately begging him to take her back. It appears the audience is being baited.

The geeky scientist is converted

As an atheist, it’s not surprising that I found the blatant “faith” message of this movie a little hard to swallow. As the sheik dines with his guests, he lectures them on the importance of “blind belief” in the impossible. Alfred is goofy and awkward, stodgy as a scientist following all of the rules and generally, no fun at all. He is, as a result, bitter and cranky, not to mention lonely and unappreciated. Then, he blossoms under the tutelage of the sheik and starts to believe, without evidence, that the salmon will do the impossible and everything is going to work out. The underwater imagery of the salmon fish being released and swimming in the wrong direction, until one fish turns around, inspiring all of the others to do the same must be seen to be believed.

The terrorists are everywhere

And, of course, there are terrorists. They flash across the screen at various points throughout the movie in all of their stereotypical glory. They wield a gun and somehow manage an assassination attempt on the sheik, despite his numerous bodyguards, only to be derailed by the quick thinking snap of a fly rod wielded by Alfred (seriously?). They break through security and open the dam to flood the fish hatchery as it is about to be successful, all because they don’t like the fact that the sheik is hanging out with “Westerners” and they fear the Western culture. Wow.

In reality, there was nary an intentionally funny scene in this movie as it casts around wildly trying to weave together a random assortment of preachy messages with a school of one-dimensional characters. And (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) the scene when Harriet’s soldier boyfriend is found alive and well, then flown to the salmon hatchery to be reunited with her just left me guffawing in disbelief. It’s hard to imagine any actor able to make this movie a winner with a lame script like this.

But wait–Struggling with her newfound feelings for Alfred (who by the end of the movie has renounced his scientific ways) Harriet and soldier boy retire to their tent together. She shyly undresses and chastely asks that they NOT have sex. Cozy spooning ensues.

Throw this one back, movie fans. Trust me.

Author: Jody MacPherson

Googling. Flickring. Tweeting. Blogging. Tumbling. Stumbling. Tubing. Pinning. Scooping. See www.about.me/jodymacpherson. Offering freelance citizen journalism, live-tweeting, basic photography and videography. Specialized services available for political candidates. See www.swingstrategies.ca for basic and customized packages reasonably-priced.

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