Although it was officially a 2011 film, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has turned up on a number of year-end best lists, and is included in the 2013 Golden Globe Award nominations for films released in 2012. Salmon debuted at TIFF11 but I missed it then, and saw it in 2012 for the first time, then saw it again in the early spring, a number of times, when I kept renting it again and again through ITunes before finally owning it. I didn't like it much the first time I saw it, or I did like it, but felt that it was an interesting failure, mostly because I felt that the ending sequence worked so badly that it ruined the film. For a couple of months I taught it, in the classroom and in story editing sessions, as an example of a good script gone wrong, most likely because of a desire by a studio executive to have a happy ending. I still feel much the same about that last scene, but I have since come to realize that it is all about one line: "Will you be needing an assistant?" If you haven't seen the film, you will know when you get there, and if you have seen it, you most likely agree.
But until that moment and indeed for much of its breadth, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is actually a beautifully written film, and is graced by two of the loveliest characters to be found on screen this year. It is not just that Emily Blunt and Ewan MacGregor were most perfect to play them: the book by Paul Torday, which I admit to only having glanced through, would seem to be a more richly satirical book, whereas the screenplay works in ironies. Irony is much subtler and softer than satire - especially when it is out of the mouth of two people who are both inherently generous and naturally shy. The clip I have included above (which was hard to find) captures the essence of that witty dynamic beautifully, even while having the shape of a Hollywood rom-com. An earlier scene, which is also the emotional plot point of the film, in which MacGregor brings Blunt a sandwich in a desire to help comfort her in the presumed death of her boyfriend, is just gorgeous. It is a master class in both writing and acting, while not dramatically acute or emotionally intense. This kind of delicate, nuanced, scene of mutual discovery among two essentially kind people is actually one of the hardest things in the world to write. Simon Beaufoy's script moves delicately between the rhythms of each character while shifting the stakes up a notch in the development of the relationship. It is subtle, refined stuff. The rest of the film is lots of fun, with Kristen Scott Thomas doing a star turn as the PM's PR duenna and a particularly enjoyable scene where she manages a scandal over the phone while tucking in and turning out her own children for school. Many other strong supporting performances fill out the narrative, but the two leads steal your heart. I must have watched this film about twenty times during 2012, with frustration, with fascination, with professional attention to the dynamics, and finally with abandoned pleasure.