I have heard it said that every story has an inner core of meaning—a structure of meaning. I might have said it myself. Yesterday.
In fact, every story has as many narrative structures as there are people who know the story. When I have seen a movie I like half a dozen times or so, I find that my mind has been turning the story this way and that, trying to find “the” structure of the story, meaning, I suppose, some inner coherence in the narrative that attracts and holds my attention. I have seen and enjoyed Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen for several months now and just today I realized what it is really about.
Here’s the plot. Dr. Frederick Jones (Ewen McGregor) is forced by office politics to hear a ridiculous scheme pitched by Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). Harriet represents a Sheik (Amr Waked) who would like to introduce the sport of salmon fishing into his country. Fred fights as hard as he can to stay away from the project, but he is drawn in; then he gets interested in it; finally committed to it. The three of them—Fred, Harriet, and the Sheik—become a team with a common interest that transcends everything they would otherwise have thought to be more important.
Dr. Jones fights involvement the way some of the movie salmon fight being reeled in. When you know him better—and after watching the move half a dozen times, you do know him better—you wonder why. He has a really awful job. It doesn’t challenge him; it scarcely engages him. The project he is most ardent about at the beginning of the film is presented as so narrow that only a fishing geek could be interested in it at all. He has a really awful marriage. Dr. Jones and his wife have not shared anything important to them for a long time. Even the little we learn about their sex life is more than we want to know. Fred’s wife makes a major career change and forgets to mention it to him. There’s really nothing there.
Here are the two lines of dialogue that, in this understanding of the story, form the turning point from alienation to commitment.
Harriet: I mean, you know, it’s fishing. Who the hell cares?
Fred: Well…strangely enough, I do.
How and why did Dr. Frederick Jones arrive at that point? In one way, you would think Dr. Jones would welcome a daring new project. What does he have to lose? But he fights it in every way he can. The reasons he gives for judging the project to be impossible as well as a huge waste of money sound rational. They are factually wrong, because he has not taken the trouble to find out anything about the Yemen, but they sound good. For each of his objections, Ms. Chetwode-Talbot has a satisfactory answer. She is also unfazed by his manifest contempt for the project.
It’s when you understand that Dr. Jones’s life is a wasteland, that you begin to see the desperation in his rejection of the project. He is completely bored in his job. He has narrowed his focus further and further until choosing the right graphic for a very narrow article he is publishing is really the most important thing in his life. He has no more life outside his job than inside. He and his wife, Mary, exist in the same space, but have no warmth to share.
It is clear then, that Dr. Jones is not rejecting the project so he will be able to get back to a life that he finds challenging and nurturing. He is rejecting it so he will not be forced to notice that he is living a life in which nothing matters. Ms. Chetwode-Talbot moves him in the direction of noticing that. That is why she is such a threat. She is attractive, knowledgeable, competent. She meets every objection he can come up with: the infrastructure has already been completed, the Sheik’s commitment is strong, the money has already been allocated.
This is a project that ought to make a salmon fisherman’s soul leap with joy. Dr. Jones is an avid salmon fisherman, or used to be—back when his life allowed for joy. But experiencing his heart leaping for joy would be very frightening to Dr. Jones. It would call his attention to how long it had been since anything really mattered to him. He wants very much not to have to notice that; and then, to admit it; and then, to know it to be true.
That’s what is going on inside—in the movie I have learned to see after all these re-watchings—when all we see on the outside is injured pride and the verbal abuse it produces. For example:
Dr. Jones: Water, Ms. Chetwode-Talbot. H2O. Fish require water. You are familiar with the concept?
Ms. Chetwode-Talbot: Yes. I am. Yes.
For reasons that have largely to do with British politics, Dr. Jones is forced to pretend to take the project seriously. Simple boorishness will no longer suffice. He demands a meeting with the engineering team from the Three Gorges Dam; a meeting with a British oxygen company; and two huge Russian cargo planes—one, he explains, to transport the fish and one to carry all the money they are wasting. He prices the project so high that he is sure it will be out of reach. Harriet simply notes the price and wants to know if the figure is in dollars or pounds.
At the end of that session, we learn that Dr. Jones will be continuingly involved with the project whether he likes it or not. Here are the lines that mark that transition.
Dr. Jones: I mean, this is a sort of joke.
Ms. Chetwode-Talbot: Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to joke about a 50-million-pound project, Dr. Jones. Not when you’re in charge of it.
Being in charge of the project finally begins to wear on Dr. Jones. The problems he now faces are practical problems—his kind of problem—and they are huge. His wife leaves for a job in Switzerland. He is forced to continue to deal with Harriet who, as I have already pointed out, is attractive and remarkably sweet-spirited. Then the word comes that Harriet’s new boyfriend, who was sent to Afghanistan, has been sent on a patrol from which, according to official reports, there were no survivors.
Harriet is distraught. It is she, now, who wishes there were no project to introduce salmon into the Yemen. She doesn’t care about the Yemen or anything else. But by now, Dr. Jones does care about the project. He has the beginnings of care for Harriet as well. He wasn’t sure how to relate to the competent confident administrator she was when he met her, but she is now a woman brought quite low by grief, and Dr. Jones knows quite a bit about grief. We have seen that he knows only how to deny it in his own life, but we learn, to our surprise, that in someone else’s life, he knows what to do about it.
That brings us back to the two lines with which we began.
Harriet: It’s just fishing. Who the hell cares?
Fred: Well…strangely enough, I do.
The story goes on. They build the project, but it is sabotaged. Harriet’s boyfriend returns from Afghanistan, but Harriet chooses the colleagueship of the project over romance with the boyfriend. The three of them—Fred, Harriet, and the sheik—recommit to the success of the project and we have reached the end of the story.
But the story that mattered to me was over when Fred said, “…I do.” Isn’t it odd, I have thought since thinking about this movie, how very hard we will fight when the alternative is to notice that the life we are now living is not really worth it. Continuing not to realize that justifies alienation, anger, resentment, pride, contempt, and simple nastiness.