Paul Torday’s satiric novel of politics, money, love, and fishing has been brought to the screen with Ewan McGregor as a government fisheries expert and Emily Blunt as an aide to a Yemeni sheik who has what seems to be an impossible dream — building a salmon fishery in his desert country.
When Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) receives a polite letter from Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) about the sheik’s proposal, he dismisses it as ridiculous and sends back a curt refusal: “Conditions in the Yemen make this project fundamentally infeasible.” But bad news about conflict in the Mid-East has the Prime Minister’s press secretary looking for “a good news story from the Middle East — a big one,” and British-Yemeni cooperation on something as benign as fly-fishing seems like just the photo-op-friendly project to distract the public. Dr. Jones is directed to meet with Ms. Chetwode-Talbot (as they will continue to address one another). It turns out that some elements of the “fundamental in-feasibility” of the project are not as infeasible as he thought. For one thing, money is no object, and it is remarkable how many obstacles that clears. And the support of the Prime Minister clears away most of the rest. It’s like a benign “Charlie Wilson’s War” with fish instead of anti-aircraft weapons).
Dr. Jones makes up the most impossibly high figure he can think of, and that immediately becomes the budget for the project. Suddenly, Dr. Jones has access to the most expert engineers in the world, including dam builders from China and to the equipment that can ship millions of fish thousands of miles. Both he and Ms. Chetwode-Talbot discover the liberating feeling of imagining endless possibilities. But there are complications and dangers that come from that much freedom. There are challenges that are beyond the capacity of even the most skilled engineers. Ms. Chetwode-Talbot has a boyfriend in the military who is fighting in the Mid-East and Dr. Jones has a wife who is on an extended business trip to Geneva. Those commitments begin to seem like just another barrier once thought impenetrable, but now open to reconsideration.
Director Lasse Hellström dissolves some barriers of his own, deftly bridging genres with a story that combines political satire with adventure and romance and is not afraid to take on issues like faith and bridging cultural boundaries. Amr Waked brings dignity and charisma to the role of the sheik. “I have too many wives not to know when a woman is unhappy,” he tells Ms. Chetwode-Talbot. He persuades Dr. Jones that what he wants is not a rich man’s whim but a part of a larger vision to inspire his countrymen and for the moment at least the idea sounds less absurd to us as well. Kirsten Scott Thomas steals the show as the press secretary, whether she is sending tart IMs or scooting her children out the door as she barks orders into her cell phone. The film effectively captures the ruthless pragmatism and frequent cynicism of political trade-offs.
It captures the broadening horizons of the two Brits transplanted to the desert as well. As McGregor and Blunt root for fish “bred for the dinner table” to locate the instinct to swim upstream, we root for them to do the same.
Parents should know that this film includes strong material for a PG-13 including sexual references and a brief explicit situation, brief strong language, and wartime and sabotage violence.
Family discussion: What does Dr. Jones discover about faith? How does the project make him think differently about his own options? What do you think will happen next?
If you like this, try: “Chocolat” and “Local Hero” and the novel by Paul Torday