There's something gloriously twee about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
Maybe it's the very conceit of the thing, that a mad -- some would say "visionary" -- Anglophile sheik could want to fling his millions at a water project in his homeland that will include a provision to transplant his favorite sport -- fly fishing -- from the Scottish Highlands to the High Desert.
Maybe it's the way the wonderful Egyptian actor Amr Waked gives the Muslim mystic's twinkle to that sheik -- "For fishermen, the only virtues are patience, tolerance, and humility."
Maybe it's the sarcastic sparks Ewan McGregor, giving full voice to his Scots accent, sets off in his snide dismissals of Emily Blunt.
"If your sheik wants to pour his money down the drain, why doesn't he buy a football club?"
Kristin Scott Thomas is the final touch of twee -- perfectly cast as a profane, hip, and cunning press secretary to the prime minister who presides over a staff of "puffed-up Ox-bridge English buffoons," but who needs a feel-good Anglo-Arab story. She sees this sheik's wild-eyed scheme to transform his corner of the Yemen into a place more like Britain -- watery, fish-eating, a land of contemplative sports fishermen -- and by not-so-subtle implication, a land more "civilized."
The movie, based on Paul Torday's novel, is a romantic confection whipped up by the screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire and the director of Chocolat. The occasional intrusion of Middle Eastern realpolitik (terrorism, military interventions) is but a momentary frown of worry in this frothy delight.
McGregor is Dr. Alfred Jones, the fussy, fastidious government salmon expert who refuses to even consider this folly -- until he's ordered to from On High. Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the sheik's PR manager and easily underestimated assistant when it comes to making his dreams -- even his follies -- come true. Harriet answers Alfred's every putdown, every obstacle, with a possibility. When he says "Get me the planners of the Three Gorges," the biggest dam in the world, he means to shut her down. But she gets them.
Harriet has a beau in the military, but that doesn't prevent the unhappily married Alfred from taking a shine to this unflappable lass.
He's so tactless (Asperger syndrome is hinted at) that he hasn't a prayer. But the sheik? He's all about prayers.
"I have too many wives to not know when a woman is not happy."
Beaufoy's script puts a sympathetic face on Islam and the Arab world, not unlike the "It is written" morale of Slumdog Millionaire. The writing sparkles with wordy wit.
And McGregor, who has never been given a script that lets him prattle on about "the bagatelle of a man with more money than sense" before, gives an unforced performance of boundless charm and romantic ineptitude.
This not-quite-madcap piece might be a tad contrived, and inoffensive in the extreme. But somehow, this cast, this director, and this writer make it all come off, as unlikely a delight as the very fishy story it is built on.