Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Learning to swim upstream

At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors,” suggesting borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression.  But in that same poem he acknowledged, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,/ That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,/ And spills the upper boulders in the sun;/And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”  Nature herself, he said, works to break down these manmade walls through the simple power of water finding the cracks and breaking the rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote:  “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together.  I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. This is what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great  new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity– through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend 50 million pounds or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this charming romantic drama that follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined.  The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage.  Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in this salmon-fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, she discovers the plot by running a search of private emails, looking for references to the Middle East. And it works. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Kristin Scott Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. Delightfully droll in her delivery, she effortlessly steals every scene.  And that is no easy theft, in a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of their chief concerns when they are ready to transfer the salmon to the Yemen River is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run upstream, or whether they will swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: whether people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the courage to know when they have been set free.

Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have.  Even if their parents never did!”  He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.”  Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take for him to find it? This is the question that the film poses to its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. Early in the film, as Dr. Jones deliberates  whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he will accept the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Halle Lasstrom, director. Lionsgate (2011), 107 minutes.

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