With its gentle humor and forgiving view of human nature, Lasse Hallstrom's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" reminds me a lot of Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero."
Not that it's as good as that sublime comedy (among the best of the '80s), but it's a low-keyed charmer that will leave most of us with bemused smiles plastered across our mugs.
Ewan McGregor is Alfred Jones, a scientist with the British Ministry of Fisheries. Ewan is a science wonk who takes his job of riding herd on Her Majesty's wild salmon population quite seriously indeed. So he's none too thrilled when someone in the Prime Minister's office — hoping for some news from the Arab world that doesn't involve an explosion — directs him to take a meeting with a publicist named Harriet (Emily Blunt) who's in the employ of a fantastically wealthy oil sheik.
This Muhammed (Amr Waked) is an avid fly fisherman who dreams of establishing a salmon fishery in his native land. All that's required is to build a massive dam, create a huge lake, and somehow fool North Atlantic salmon to reproduce amid the desert sands.
Alfred is dweeby, obtuse and a poorly-paid civil servant, while Harriet is hip, well-heeled and cutting edge.
Naturally they fall in love, notwithstanding Alfred's long relationship with a woman who seems to have little use for him (after a round of perfunctory sex she declares, "That should do you for a while") and Harriet's recent fling with a fella who's a Brit version of a Navy Seal and is being sent off to some godforsaken hot spot.
But the real star of the show is Waked as Shiek Muhhamed. This Egyptian actor (he played one of Sadam Hussein's sons in HBO's "The House of Saddam") has an astonishing face and piercing eyes, and in his love of fishing this potentate is absolutely Zenlike. He's like Alec Guinness in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode…only sexy.
McGregor and Blunt are just as charming as you'd expect, and the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty," "Slumdog Millionaire," "127 Hours") gives them plenty of clever banter to lure us in.
So against his better judgement Alfred finds himself getting onboard with this hairbrained scheme.
"Salmon Fishing…" is far from perfect. A plot development involving assassins who think the sheik is too progressive feels a bit cheap, and Kristin Scott Thomas' mugging as a Downing Street bigwig threatens to derail the whole enterprise.
But director Hallstrom, whose resume runs from "My Life as a Dog" to "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat" and "An Unfinished Life," has just the gentle touch to make it seem mostly effortless.