No Great Sheikhs
One of the charges levelled at British films is that often, in ambition, in composition, they’re indistinguishable from television. That needn’t be surprising; TV has a huge stake in UK celluloid – it’s half the industry and shapes the thinking; but the indictment might be increasingly unfair, after all the programmes made for your drool box now take risks that are anathema to the taxpayer funded Britflick (shouldn’t these movies be free if you’ve already paid for them?).
Exhibit Z991: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a quaint, fairly timid romantic comedy drama from BBC Films, that plays like The Thick of It with its balls cut off. If its best poster quote comes from Woman and Home, ‘tis no shock; this is genteel satire draped over a love plot with familiar, Bridget Jones hugging complications. Of course we expect the dreary and anal Ewan McGregor to ultimately hook the pretty but personality-free Emily Blunt, but there’s her solider boyfriend in the way, like an IED hidden by the road side, and his dowdy wife, who has none of Blunt’s sex appeal. Oh, the humanity!
Both are united in their love of wasting taxpayers money on a government backed fishing project, devised as a good news story for the Middle East. The film revels in the project’s unfeasibility, but these are scrunched script pages from Armando Iannucci’s waste bin. There’s no spark to the film’s humour – no edge. Instead, Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a Matalan Malcolm Tucker, armed with but a slew of fucks and a haughty tone to stimulate our pleasure centres. We know the civil service bureaucracy is ridiculous because they have silly, snake shaped furniture. When you see this gentle mockery aimed at Middle England audiences, you immediately understand why Britain hasn’t had a revolution in five centuries.
Perhaps Paul Torday’s source novel was full of bite and charm, no one knows; what’s certain however, is that Simon Beaufoy’s adaptation is anaemic. Chief amongst Yemen’s problems (internecine conflict aside) is the central pairing of McGregor and Blunt. Perhaps it’s possible for a character to be simultaneously stiflingly and charming, but McGregor fails in his attempt at internalising the same. You think of the energy he brought to his early roles, the promise he showed, and wonder how he became so safe and uninspiring. Blunt, who’s asked to do little more than be teary and sexually unobtainable, excels on both fronts, but given the lack of crackle between these two unlikely bedfellows, there’s no question of hope for their relationship welling within the audience; it was never there.
It may be a holdover from Torday’s book, but the plot seems unduly complicated. Both human contraceptives, that’s Blunt’s squaddie boyfriend of three weeks and McGregor’s dutiful but dull wife from a now passionless marriage, fill screen time but could safely be excised from the narrative. Do we really need these extras when our characters have got enough to surmount as it is, namely diametrically opposed personalities?
These straw-partners are clutter on deck; we’re waiting for them to disappear from the moment they arrive. Beaufoy makes it easy for the couple to extricate themselves without losing audience sympathy – Blunt barely knows her man and McGregor is trapped, having married young – so why bother? Where’s the risk? What this story needs is conflict, not complications plucked from an agony aunt’s letters page.