Ewan McGregor is often best in the small, understated roles he plays in independent films that don’t reach large audiences. He was great in “Beginners,” a small film about a man who is coping with his father’s coming out as gay late in life followed by his father’s fatal diagnosis with cancer. It’s a sad movie, but McGregor makes it work with his costars Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent.
McGregor is in another independent film and he shines again as Dr. Alfred Jones, a British government employee and fishery expert who is drawn into someone else’s fantasy against his will. Alfred Jones is a serious, boring man who is most excited by fly fishing and lures. His wife Mary (Rachael Stirling) is more concerned with checking her blackberry than listening to him talk about fish. When she is called out of the country for work, she books her flight and packs without telling him about it.
Dr. Jones is pulled out of his safe and pedantic life when Harriet (Emily Blunt) emails him asking if he could help on a project for one of her very wealthy clients. Harriet works with Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked,) a well-off man from Yemen who enjoys salmon fishing in northern Britain. But he wants to bring sport fishing to his native country and he wants Dr. Jones to help make it happen. At first Jones says it is impossible due to the arid nature of Yemen, the hot temperatures and the lack of a river that is long enough to allow salmon to swim upstream.
When Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas,) a public relations person for the Prime Minister’s office, is looking for feel-good news about Anglo-Arab relations she comes across the salmon fishing in Yemen email. She pushes for Dr. Jones to take a meeting with Harriet. He meets with her and she tells him that there is water in Yemen, high in some mountain areas where the monsoons hit once a year. There is already a dam that is waiting to store the water. The main thing missing is the fish. Dr. Jones is still against the project, but when he is told that he can work on the project exclusively (with the Sheikh paying double his normal salary) or he can quit, he decides to work on it, albeit with a still closed mind.
Harriet and Dr. Jones are professional together, though under the surface they are each dealing with their own personal problems. Mary has left for an extended stay in Switzerland and Dr. Jones feels like their relationship is not going well. Harriet is pining for a boyfriend who is overseas fighting in Afghanistan with the British Army. The pair only dated for a few weeks before he shipped off, but they promised to wait for each other.
The two visit Scotland together at the Sheikh’s castle where he has a great view and access to a river that is perfect for salmon fishing. The Sheikh talks about his reasons for bringing salmon fishing to the Yemen and for building the dam. He sees it as an opportunity to create agriculture in his country that could feed more people. He talks about faith and persuades Dr. Jones to take on the project wholeheartedly. After the visit, Dr. Jones finds himself on the same page as the Sheikh. All of the logistics seem to be worked out except getting 10,000 salmon to Yemen.
As the project is moving along – with a strict deadline to get the salmon into the Yemeni River before it is time for spawning season – Harriet receives a blow when her boyfriend is listed as Missing in Action. She ignores emails, calls and any mention of the project from Jones. When he shows up at her door, she accuses him of being insensitive for wanting to talk about work. But he breaks down the professional barrier between the two of them when he shows her that he just brought a sandwich to make sure she is eating.
Patricia Maxwell also throws some wrenches in the project when she fails to realize that local fisherman are not going to be happy to give up 10,000 native salmon from rivers in the United Kingdom. When she realizes that project will fuel bad press for the Prime Minister, she pulls the government out of the project. The Sheikh and Dr. Jones will have to move along on their own. When she sees another positive press opportunity, she plans to crash it for the benefit of the Prime Minister.
The movie has a lot of humor and despite some of the low moments, such as Harriet’s and Dr. Jones’ failing relationships, it is mostly an upbeat movie about overcoming impossible odds.