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Swimming against the current

April 5, 2012

Although Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has very little to do with the Arctic, I’ve been thinking about salmon and the north recently and so went to see the film. I’d also read the novel by Paul Torday (2007) some years ago and was curious how it would translate to the big screen. The film beautifully and quite cleverly transformed the epistolary aspects of the novel (letters between Harriet Chetwode-Talbot and Captain Robert Matthews, emails between Dr. Alfred and Mary Jones, internal government memos, and interview transcriptions), showing instant message conversations, words from emails being typed overlaying the characters on the big screen, characters speaking the texts as they write them on their phones, etc. Other than a few changes to the plot that streamlined the story and the introduction of the indispensable Press Secretary to the Prime Minister Patricia Maxwell (Peter Maxwell in the novel) played by Kristin Scott Thomas, the major difference is the fairly predictable upbeat ending (and far fewer deaths) favored by the director (Lassan Halström, Chocolat) and screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire).

Like the novel, the film is centered around the two main protagonists (Dr. Alfred Jones and Harriet Chetwode-Talbot) and their respective relationships to their significant others–Harriet’s relationship is new, passionate and full of love and promise; Fred’s is worn, habitual, unsatisfying, even loveless. While both the novel and film follow the disintegration of these relationships, the film has the more satisfying conclusion of bringing the main characters together at the end. (Also, it is a significant change in the film to make the water for the salmon come from a dam built for agricultural purposes to better the lives of the Yemeni people rather than the natural phenomenon of a mountain river. The dam can then be sabotaged by those fearing “western influences”–later to be rebuilt in a community involvement and education effort–while the flood in the novel is a purely natural phenomenon–with religious overtones, of course–that kills the Sheikh, Peter Maxwell and others).

But the salmon. The salmon are lively creatures that make their material presence felt through “fish-eye” views of the humans (I for one, had the strange desire for the bread crumbs Dr. Jones tosses to his Koi as I watched them tumble into the water through Koi-eyes) and cuts to “within-the-school” shots as the fish swim around in various pools of water (the pivotal moment of the film happens underwater as first one salmon and then the others turn to head upstream). The salmon are also, following a long tradition of animal representations, the figural manifestations of human desire and limitations. The film not very subtly portrays Dr. Jones as, well, a “cold fish” (he doesn’t know how to joke, he is rather regimented in his habits), or perhaps more accurately, a “fish out of water” (he fails at the game of politics, he seems unable to express his emotions), or better yet, as a person who learns how to swim against the current of expectation. Although cuts to fish seem to happen whenever there is an emotional moment between humans, the salmon are not simply avatars for human emotional states. An author once wrote that “The happiness of people has a great deal in common with the happiness of salmon”–identifying what the film would have us believe as well: if first we make the world a habitable place for the optimal flourishing of salmon, then human flourishing will follow. And though many salmon die (and relationships fail) in the process of turning the Wadi Aleyn into a supportive habitat, some of both succeed. There is an interesting tension around wild vs. farm stocked fish and which shall be the messengers of the grand plan of the Sheikh to being salmon fishing to the Yemen–for both Dr. Jones and the Sheikh have an angler’s abhorrence of the fat, raised-to-be-eaten farmed salmon. The climax and the triumph of the salmon and Dr. Jones occurs when both realize that what society has programmed them to do is not what ultimately lies at the heart of life: the salmon transcend their humble beginnings and turn to swim upstream like their wild relatives would do and Dr. Jones breaks free of his enervating stasis swimming circles in his loveless marriage and takes the wilder route of following a path of dreams, miracles and endless possibilities.

Does the film glorify the farmed fish? Does it make fish-farming and the environmental hazards of doing so okay, because the fish will always retain a sense of their wildness, of their inherited DNA that urges them to swim upstream? I don’t think so. Although framed in the shadow of British involvement in Afghanistan and turbulent relations in the Middle East, the film is not that deep either politically or aesthetically. Instead, it is a fanciful romp that explores many sorts of “what ifs” without having to settle on any one sort of future and it takes serisouly what the life of a fish means for the life of a human, humans and fish becoming something other, together.

My one criticism (other than the Good Muslim vs. the Bad Muslim tired trope) is that I’m left feeling uncomfortable about how Mary Jones is written in the film and how she is punished for her decisions. Patricia Maxwell is shown onscreen with her family (husband, three kids, “happily married”) almost as often as she is shown at work. Mary is always leaving or coming from work, barely breezing through her home with enough time to make her husband a sandwich. The one time that having children is brought up by her husband, she is distracted by a text from her office and doesn’t hear him. Ultimately, I believe the audience is supposed to understand that she chooses her career over her husband (and we shouldn’t be upset when he leaves her) and this decision relieves him of the need to support and encourage her to those ends that make her most happy. Captain Robert Mayers (Matthews in the novel) is similarly disappointed at the end of the film as his love interest chooses to follow her dream rather than him, but his loss is pitiable rather than punitive.

From → Films

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