Toronto 2011: Hallstrom sees a little 'Gilbert Grape' in 'Salmon'
Combining a sweet comedy with pointed satire is never easy. But try doing it in an absurd environment--say, a buttoned-down scientist attempting to transport an entire river to the Yemeni desert -- and you can quickly find yourself underwater.
That was the challenge faced by Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish-born director who brought his heartfelt but at times barbed comedy "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" to the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend.
The movie tells of said scientist (Ewan McGregor) who's coerced into creating a fishing habitat in the driest parts of the Arabian Peninsula by ruthless press secretary Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a turn reminiscent of Peter Capaldi's acid-tongued press man from "In the Loop"). Maxwell wants to create a feelgood story about the Middle East to distract from news of violence and terror, and McGregor's ordinary-seeming Fred Jones, aided by a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked), is the man to do it.
Whether veteran director Hallstrom and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy succeeded in pulling off the high-wire act will be for audiences to decide when CBS Films releases the movie in the coming months (some critics, like The Times' Betsy Sharkey, strongly believe that he has).
Hallstrom said he used a proven equation to keep the whole movie in balance. "What I tried to do was create bizarre elements in a realistic world," Hallstrom told 24 Frames. "In that way it's like 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape,' " he said, referring to his whimsical 1993 dramedy starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. "You make things as realistic as possible so that we'll believe the unusual."
Hallstrom sandwiched this project between two Nicholas Sparks adaptations, 2010's "Dear John" and the upcoming "Safe Haven." With its dare-to-dream idealism competing with a cynicism about the image-management of war, "Salmon Fishing" strikes a somewhat different tone, although Hallstrom admits he had to play down some of the satiric elements from Paul Torday's 2007 novel for other reasons.
"We couldn't really make it about Tony Blair anymore," Hallstrom said dryly.
But the director said what the movie lost in cultural specificity it gained in resonance. "It's that wonderful dream of crossing cultural waters," he said. "i think everyone can relate to that."
--Steven Zeitchik in Toronto
Photo: Amr Waked and Ewan McGregor in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." Credit: CBS Films