Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor
Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) and fisheries scientist Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) embark on an unlikely project for a salmon-obsessed sheik © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

Now this is a fine romance. In a miserable winter of dreadful date-night dreck (The Vow, This Means War, Friends With Kids), this warm, wise and wonderful comic love story is as welcome as an early spring.

Ewan McGregor is the smugly practical Dr Alfred Jones, an only slightly eccentric British fisheries civil servant. He’s approached with what sounds like a preposterous proposal by the efficient, upbeat and effortlessly sexy Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who represents the financial interests of a wealthy sheik. As a fly-fishing fan who would like to enjoy the sport in his own country, Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked) wants to build a dam in Yemen to create a river and stock it with salmon. Money, of course, is no object.

The unlikely joint project is encouraged by the British government in the form of Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the prime minister’s calculatingly no-nonsense press secretary. “We need a good-news story from the Middle East about things that don’t explode,” she says, and begins pulling strings to accommodate the sheik’s plan.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Kristin Scott Thomas and Amr Waked
The prime minister's press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) hopes to get a good story out of assisting Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked) © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

On the personal side, soft-spoken but sincere Alfred — Fred, for short — has a wife who’s a bit of a cold fish (zing!). “That should do you for awhile,” she tells him with a condescending pat after disinterested sex. Later, she doesn’t even bother informing Fred before agreeing to take a six-week business trip to Geneva. Meanwhile, Harriet has promised to remain true to a soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison) she has known for only three weeks when he is deployed to “someplace sandy,” where he soon becomes incommunicado.

Although Fred and Harriet initially maintain an amusingly proper just-colleagues relationship, it’s as predictable as salmon running upstream to spawn that these two will end up hooked on each other. What’s impressive is how well the screenplay (by The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy, adapting the novel by Paul Torday) makes the classic formula seem charming and fresh. The characters are adorable, their situation is interesting and the dialog is delightful. Hearing Fred persist in referring to Harriet as “Ms Chetwode-Talbot,” is almost as enjoyable as seeing how playfully amused she is by his formality.

There’s also a little touch of tragedy that makes for some moving moments. When things look particularly insurmountable, Harriet wonders if she and Fred are “just part of an elaborate practical joke.” But everyone is firmly determined to see the folly through to the finish, because even Fred ends up getting the faith.

Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) flawlessly stages the story, keeping even the most achingly sentimental scenes from becoming sappy and the most humorous ones from seeming too silly. It’s almost a real-world fairy tale, complete with a regally exotic sheik, a remote Scottish castle, some dastardly villains and a quest for true love. Most of all, it’s about how pursuing an impossible dream sometimes makes more sense than being sensible.

[Rating: 4.5 stars]

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is released in US and Canada on Friday March 9 2012. Australia’s released date is April 5 and UK’s April 20, 2012. We have interviews with Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor and writer Simon Beaufoy coming up in the next few days.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.