Friday, 20 April 2012

Life, love and salmon fishing in the Yemen

It has a rather peculiar title, but Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt’s latest film promises plenty of magic

Written by Fiona Hicks

It is an unlikely title for a blockbuster, but if the hype is to be believed, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen is set to be one of this year’s most heart-warming films. Part drama, part comedy – even part fable – it tells the tale of a sheikh’s desire to bring the sport of salmon fishing to his homeland, which in turn brings together a cynical fishing expert, played by Ewan McGregor, and a carefree consultant, Emily Blunt.

Producer Paul Webster (of Shakespeare In Love fame) admits that it was a challenging project to get off the ground, not least because of the spurious title: ‘People, particularly the Americans, hear the film title and think it’s a documentary. Getting the movie started was a tough sell. It took the combination of Emily and Ewan to get the green light.’

The pair are certainly a winning combination, both on screen and off. They sparkle in each other’s company, frequently breaking out into giggles and joshing each other. The part of uptight, middle-aged Dr Alfred Jones is so unlike Ewan himself, and was something of a departure for him as an actor: ‘No one is offering me the 20-year-old dashing leads any more,’ he smiles, ‘but then I’m in my 40s now, so I guess it’s natural that that would be the case.’

The character from Paul Torday’s 2006 novel, on which the film is based, is actually significantly older, and not Scottish. ‘Fred’s not a Scot in the film but I felt there was no reason why he shouldn’t be,’ explains Ewan. ‘In fact I thought it would be better if he was. We could have aged me up – and there was some talk of putting silver in my hair – but I felt that we could achieve his uptightness with the acting.’

Emily-Ewan-02-382Emily and Ewan at the film's premiere

Perth-born Ewan adopted the distinctive Morningside accent – an elegant if somewhat stilted Edinburgh inflection. It was a subtle difference, but one with a huge effect. Says Ewan: ‘It was one of the things that made me realise I was in good hands with Emily. When we met in the rehearsal room, we read through a scene with the accent, and she said I had to do it! Adding that personal touch to the character was a leap of faith, and I needed the support of my fellow actor.’

‘It was so perfect,’ Emily says. ‘It instantly transformed him!’

Emily was hand-picked for the role of effervescent Harriet. Ever since her appearance in The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep, her career has gone from strength to strength. She has starred in a succession of Hollywood movies, including The Young Victoria (written by Downton’s Julian Fellowes), The Wolfman and Gulliver’s Travels. But she was particularly drawn to the quirky English script for this film: ‘It had charm, wit and actually captures how human beings speak to each other. And it’s quite rare to find that.’

Indeed, Emily’s whole family shared her enthusiasm for the role. Her parents got straight on the phone to make sure she took the part. ‘It is the only time they’ve called me and said, “You have to do this!” It was their favourite book at the time.’ Emily’s mother took ‘at least 15 members’ of the Blunt family to the European premiere, too.

She is no stranger to the Hollywood blockbuster, but cherishes how this film, as demonstrated by Ewan’s imperious accent, relies on the strength of the acting to tell the tale. ‘I think there is an audience fatigue with all of these big blockbuster movies – some of them are great, but a lot of them are mind-numbing. I think people are crying out for great stories and at least something that will make them feel in some way.’

The story is captivating and its tricky title much more nuanced than it first appears. The sheikh (who is played by ‘Egyptian George Clooney’ Amr Waked) regards his quest to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen as a metaphor to finding God, and even the curmudgeonly Fred undergoes a sort of awakening.

‘It’s about believing. At the beginning, Fred doesn’t have belief in anything,’ says Ewan. ‘As a fisheries scientist he has a very practical mind, but is repressed and a rather locked-up person. Then through the sheikh wanting to introduce salmon fishing to his country, Fred’s introduced to Emily’s character, Harriet, whom he falls in love with. He’s brought back to life.’

The film was shot in London, Morocco, and the Scottish Highlands. Ewan has lived in LA for the past three years, but was delighted to return to his homeland. ‘It was the first time I had shot up in the Highlands since Trainspotting. It had been a long time, and it was gorgeous.’ All of the actors lived together in a hunting lodge while filming, and spent their spare time exploring, eating together and – of course – fishing.

‘I can definitely understand the appeal,’ says Emily. ‘Though the part I like is the staring into space, rather than the actual hooking of the fish. It is so relaxing.’

In the spirit of believing the unbelievable, it seemed that providence was smiling on the production when they moved to Morocco. One scene is set in the aftermath of a flood, and despite repeated assurances that it would never rain in Morocco at that time of year, it poured. ‘The set was actually washed away in a flash flood, four days before shooting. But in the end it wasn’t a terrible thing: Mother Nature gave us fantastic production value because we couldn’t pay for the way it looked.’

The finished product is a gentle yet majestic movie. With a deftly-written script, acquiescent locations, and a cast who clearly got on famously, producer Paul Webster could not have been happier with the result. ‘What could have been an extremely difficult film to make turned into a real pleasure,’ he says.

And, for the record, Ewan loves the title: ‘I can’t imagine it being called anything else.’

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen is in cinemas now.


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