A Pair of Fish Tales: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The snappy dialogue tops the drama in Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Meanwhile a documentary about perhaps the world's greatest sushi chef is hunger-inducing.

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Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor

If it could be arranged for Ewan McGregor to say “doolally” in films more often, the world would be a more joyous place. In director Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a Wag the Dog-style satire in which McGregor plays a sublimely persnickety Scottish fisheries expert, he lets it drip off his tongue in reference to the dream of a billionaire sheikh to bring salmon fishing to his native Yemen. As in, that’s “a doolally enterprise,” meaning deranged, crazy, irrational.*

Dr. Alfred “Fred” Jones (McGregor) wants nothing to do with the Yemen salmon project, even when the Sheikh’s charming London-based assistant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) asks him nicely. But he’s pushed into it by higher ups, including the prime minister’s vicious publicist (scene snatcher Kristin Scott Thomas), who wants a positive story about Anglo relations out of the Middle East to counter some war disaster in Afghanistan, and his fisheries agency boss (Conleth Hill of Game of Thrones), who dislikes Fred nearly as much as Fred dislikes him. When any combination of this brisk quartet is in a room together, muttering, sniping and dangling doolallys at each other, Salmon Fishing is tart and amusing. McGregor and Blunt in particular are fantastically well matched sparring partners.

(MORE: Time’s 10 Questions with Ewan McGregor)

It’s only when it takes an unfortunate wrong turn from playful wit into the dramatic and sentimental — Hallström’s speciality — that the movie starts to unravel. Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) is an graceful man of good intentions, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) has written him some real groaners (“I have too many wives not to know when a woman is unhappy” he tells Harriet.) The Sheikh’s dream rests on symbolism. In a speech to Fred he points out a perceived exception to the grotesque biases of the British class system. “Fishermen, I have noticed,” he intones, “They don’t care if I’m brown or white.” Even though he plans that the project will provide irrigation for agriculture eventually, first he wants to see fishermen bonding as they cast lines in in the river he’ll create by filling up a dry canyon in Yemen. For him, fishing is the great equalizer, and the the symbolic is more important than the practical.

Other sicky sweet cultural revelations include Fred’s observation, on watching prayers in Yemen, that in England he doesn’t know anyone who goes to church anymore. “On Sundays we go to Target,” he says dolefully. Salmon Fishing is a movie about a cynical ploy to improve Anglo-Arab relations which itself has a habit of soft pedaling when it comes to the trickier aspects of Anglo-Arab relations. Wedged into this feel good atmosphere is an assassination attempt, some awkwardness involving Harriet’s brief relationship with a British soldier gone missing in Afghanistan, and the dissolution of Fred’s marriage. Salmon Fishing was a novel first and you can see how all these juggled balls could stay in the air on the page, but in movie form, many of them just seem extraneous. There’s also a sudden urgency about the timing of the project that makes no sense at all; surely the doolally plan of a billionaire is not bound by anything as mundane as a deadline?

Another story of fish and obsession, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, comes out in limited release this week, and it’s a production as clean and meticulous as the sushi making it features. Chef Jiro Ono is the 85 year-old proprietor of Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro and the proud recipient of three Michelin stars. The restaurant seats 10 patrons and serves only sushi, every exquisite morsel of which looks to die for. It’s beautifully photographed and explained at every stage from market to table, a foodie’s dream night at the movies. The gentle shaping of the fish and sushi could lull you into a trance. A hungry trance.

(MORE: TIME’S Top 10 Movie Feasts)

But director David Gelb’s movie is less a study of the food itself than of the idea of a lifetime calling. Jiro’s level of devotion to what he does is almost religious. Although he has trained two sons to be his equals, or close to it (we’re told his elder son Yoshikazu prepared the food for the Michelin reviewers) he will not hand off the business to his heirs. Given how much the business has changed in his lifetime — not just techniques but the disappearance of some species due to overfishing — you’d think Jiro might want to go home and put his feet up. But no, he’s the Queen Elizabeth of sushi chefs, standing behind the counter in his white apron, humble yet humming with supreme confidence while his heirs wait. You feel for his sons. The least he could do is send one of them to lead an American expansion. Compared to bringing salmon to the Yemen, that would be a snap.

* Words like this make the Internet a pleasure. Doolally’s origins apparently stem from the Indian town of Deolali, where British military men were sent back in the colony days, stewing in the heat until they lost their minds while they waited to return to England.

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