Maybe it’s the very conceit of the thing, that a mad — some would say “visionary– Anglofile sheikh could want to fling his millions at a water project in his homeland that will include a provision to transplant his favorite sport — fly fishing — from the Highlands to the High Desert.
Maybe it’s the way the wonderful Arm Waked gives the twinkle of a Muslim mystic to that sheikh — “For fishermen, the only virtues are patience, tolerance and humility.”
Maybe it’s the sarcastic sparks Ewan McGregor, giving full voice to his Scots accent, sets off in his snide dismissals of Emily Blunt.
“If your sheikh wants to pour his money down the drain, why doesn’t he buy a football club?. She Kristin Scott Thomas is the final touch of twee — perfectly cast as a profane, hip and cunning press secretary to the prime minister who presides over a staff of “puffed up Ox-bridge English buffoons,” but who needs a feel-good Anglo-
Arab story. She sees this sheikh’s wild-eyed scheme to transform his corner of the Yemen into a place more like Britain — watery, fish-eating, a land of contemplative sports fishermen — and by not-so-subtle implication, more “civilized.”
The movie, based on Peter Torbday’s novel, is a romantic confection whipped up by the screenwriter of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the director of “Chocolat.” The occasional intrusion of Middle Eastern realpolitik (terrorists, castle-buying sheikhs) is but a momentary frown of worry in this frothy delight.
McGregor is Dr. Alfred Jones, the fussy, fastidious government salmon expert who refuses to even consider this mad scheme — until he’s ordered to. Blunt is Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the sheikh’s PR manager and easily underestimated assistant when it comes to making his dreams come true. Harriet answers Alfred’s every putdown, every obstacle, with a possibility. When he says “Get me the planners of the Three Gorges Project,” the biggest damn in the world, to make it happen, he means to shut her down. But she gets them.
Harriet has a beau in the military, but that doesn’t prevent the unhappily married Alfred from taking a shine to this unflappable lass. He’s so tactless (Asperger syndrome is hinted at) that he hasn’t a prayer. But the sheikh? He’s all about prayers.
“I have too many wives to not know when a woman is not happy.”
Beaufoy’s script puts a sympathetic face on Islam and the Arab world, not unlike the “It is written” morale of “Slumdog Millionaire.”. And the writing sings sparkles with wordy wit.
And McGregor, who has never been given a script that lets him prattle on about “the bagatelle of a man with more money than sense” before, gives a sunny, unforced performance of boundless charm and social romantic ineptitude.
This not-quite-madcap piece may be a tad contrived, and inoffensive in the extreme. But somehow, this cast, this director and this writer make it all come off, as unlikely a delight as the very fishy story it is built on.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, and brief language
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas
Credits: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, written by Simon Beaufoy, based on the Paul Torday novel. A CBS Films release. Running time: 1:45