Smart and sweet aren’t adjectives that often get applied to the same movie, but they both apply to “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” the new movie by Lasse Hallström (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat,” “Dear John”).
First and foremost, audiences should know this isn’t a documentary about fishing. This is a romantic comedy whose heart in an earlier age, when the main characters didn’t jump into bed at the first opportunity. Ewan McGregor, who actually gets to sound Scottish here, plays Fred Jones, an unsatisfactorily married fishing expert who works for the English government, and gets roped in as an expert consultant on a project that sounds insane. A Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) wants to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen. This will involve creating a river to put salmon in, for starters. Emily Blunt is the financial advisor (with the delightful name Harriet Chetwode-Talbot) who ropes him.
The obligatory hurdles boy must get over before getting to girl are given fresh twists. Fred is not happily married, but is clearly not the extramarital affair type. Harriet is single, but has only just commenced a romantic relationship with a soldier who’s gone inconveniently MIA, deepening her sense of obligation to him.
McGregor is at his absolute most likeable in this thoroughly delightful movie, and his chemistry with Blunt is quietly effective. Blunt’s versatility is on full display. This performance is entirely different than her brash, nonconformist in last year’s “The Adjustment Bureau.” Egyptian thespian Amr Waked is largely unknown to western audiences, other than an uncredited turn in “Contagion.” Hopefully we’ll see more of him.
Faith, somewhat surprisingly, is a major theme in this otherwise lightweight confection. The sheikh sees fishing as a spiritual activity and his conversations with Fred while the two cast their lines in a Scottish stream recall “A River Runs Through It.” The audience isn’t beaten over the head with deep philosophy, although at one point Fred asks Harriet if she knows anyone who actually goes to church. She doesn’t. “We usually go to Target on Sunday,” he says.
Hallström and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) do an astonishingly agile job of negotiating a minefield of potential clichés that endanger this scenario from beginning to end. Some of these come via the character of the Prime Minister’s public relations maven, hysterically played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is actually responsible for the whole salmon fishing in the Yemen project becoming a government priority. But even the photography is atypical. Most movies with desert scenes tend to go for the slightly overexposed, sunbaked look, which cinematographer Terry Stacey (“50/50”) wisely eschews.
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is now playing at the Spectrum 8 Theatre in Albany.