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Less a satire, more a fishy rom-com

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

(12A, general release, 107 minutes) Director: Lasse Hallström Stars: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas


Lasse Hallström, who made his name directing dodgy ABBA videos, has a flair for knocking the hard edges off novels and making them sugary and all too palatable. In films like An Unfinished Life, Dear John and Chocolat (a wafer-thin concoction which somehow got five Oscar nominations), a rosy spin is put on stories that tend to become romances whether they like it or not.

In its original incarnation, Paul Torday's novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, was a knowing satire about the endless cynicism of the political classes: in Hallström's film, it's a Cary Grant romance.

A pretty enjoyable one, it must be said, and Ewan McGregor excels in a lead role that casts him some way beyond his comfort zone.

Alfred Jones is a mid-ranking civil servant who advises the government on fisheries. He's a cautious, buttoned-down, repressed man who lives in the suburbs with his angry, absent wife.

Alfred is sceptical in the extreme when a young woman called Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaches him with an unlikely plan.

She works for wealthy Yemeni sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked), who's a keen fly-fisherman and indulges his passion on a vast Scottish estate. The sheikh has come up with an unlikely plan to revitalise Yemen's desert and attract tourists to the country. By means of an elaborate damming project, he aims to create a fast-flowing river that will become a spawning ground for introduced salmon.

Preposterous, is Alfred's assessment, and though he's charmed by Ms Chetwode-Talbot's beauty he refuses to have anything to do with it. But when the Prime Minister's terrifying press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, chewing nails and hamming it up nicely) hears about it, she smells that rarest of things, a good-news Middle East story, and Alfred is ordered to play ball or else.

This is only the start of poor Alfred's problems: first Britain's anglers rise as one when they hear of plans to export stocks of prime salmon, then Mrs Albert announces that she's leaving him.

It wouldn't take Einstein to figure out where all this is heading. As the story unfolds, it's commendably stiff British flirting rather than political scheming that dominates. As a result a lot of the book's biting satire is lost, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen becomes a romantic comedy with fish.

But a pretty entertaining one, thanks to a decent script and strong performances from McGregor and the likeable Blunt.

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