Among the surprises to be found in the Golden Globe nominations announced Thursday morning, the unexpected recognition for one film really stood out. That little movie would be Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which picked up three nods: Best Actor in a Comedy, for Ewan McGregor; Best Actress in a Comedy, for Emily Blunt; and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. That’s pretty major recognition for a film that only made $9 million Stateside. So what exactly is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen? Directed by Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), it’s a gentle indie starring McGregor and Blunt as a fly-fishing expert and a PR representative, respectively, who undertake a goodwill project to improve relations between the U.K. and Yemen. That project is to invest in a vision held by one of Yemen’s most progressive and forward-thinking rulers, Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked), to bring salmon fishing to his country — quite a challenge, since you need a temperate climate and, obviously, an abundant water supply for salmon to thrive. Yemen, mostly covered by a scorching desert, has neither. It’s a delicate “against all odds” story about starry-eyed dreamers trying to make the impossible possible. In short, the very definition of a “feel good” movie.
But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen certainly hasn’t been discussed as an awards season contender — until the three Globe nominations it received today, that is. So how did this underseen gem win over the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and get these accolades?
1. The Musical or Comedy Category Allows for Films Released Earlier in the Year To Be Acknowledged
By its very nature, the Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy category allows for more films to be represented among the Globe contenders than are usually being buzzed about during the awards season. For one, that’s because the guilds and the Oscars rarely award comedies. As such, it’s entirely possible for a film that gets a Best Musical or Comedy nod at the Golden Globes to fail to pick a single nomination at any other major awards gathering. Witness such strong former nominees like 50/50, Burn After Reading, and In Bruges, and also such Musical or Comedy nominees like The Tourist, Red, Burlesque, and Alice in Wonderland (all four of which came from that gem of a movie year 2010). For two, the very fact that this category exists means that the HFPA has to cast a wider net and look back at movies released earlier in the year. Salmon Fishing came out on March 9, making it pretty much a no-show for the Academy Awards season. But the Globes have recently nominated Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids, (500) Days of Summer, and, sigh, The Hangover — the wolf pack bros even won the statuette — all of which were released in the first half of their respective years.
2. International Co-Productions Do Well
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is just that: an association of foreign journalists who write for publications based in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America, yet cover Hollywood. Often, they like to recognize films that cross national boundaries, and those typically come in the form of transnational productions with financing from studios outside of America. We’re not talking about the latest subtitled art house film, mind you. Michael Haneke‘s Amour was very much ghettoized in the Best Foreign Language Film category. We’re talking about films like The Tourist and Midnight in Paris that were funded largely by non-American studios like GK Films or StudioCanal, but that are in every other respect pretty much indistinguishable from a typical Hollywood movie. Or an American-funded movie with a largely non-American cast like this year’s nominee Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen represents a kind of transnational sweet spot here because it had American funding in part by Lionsgate, with the rest picked up by Britain’s BBC Films, Kudos Films, and the U.K. Film Council. And it featured a totally non-American cast of Brits (McGregor, Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas), and Middle Eastern megastar Amr Waked.
3. It Has a Likable But Under-Lauded Cast
As far as Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt’s nominations are concerned, we say, “About time!” It’s hard to think of two more consistently solid, often brilliant, actors working in the industry. But for all their critical accolades, they’ve been pretty much overlooked whenever awards season comes around. The only major American award Blunt has received was a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for the BBC TV movie Gideon’s Daughter in 2007. She also received Globe nods for The Devil Wears Prada (where she was arguably the best thing about that movie that wasn’t named Meryl Streep) in 2007 and The Young Victoria in 2009, but the Academy has never taken notice of her work. Shockingly, this is only McGregor’s second Globe nod (he’s never been Oscar nominated, either) after his nomination for Moulin Rouge! in 2002. His great performances from Trainspotting to The Ghost Writer drew raves… and awards season yawns. Maybe the HFPA decided it was time to give these two a bit more recognition. Even Hollywood.com called their work in Salmon Fishing Oscar-bait earlier this year.
4. Golden Globe Winner Simon Beaufoy Wrote the Script
The Golden Globe and Oscar-winning scribe of Slumdog Millionaire was already an HFPA favorite. And, though he was working in far more subtle territory than 2008’s bombastic Slumdog, he drops us into the bustling maelstrom of a modernizing Middle East much the same way he did with India, appealing once again to the HFPA’s appreciation of a globalized cinema.
5. It’s a Light Comedy, But It Shows the Middle-East in a Way We Rarely See It.
Salmon Fishing is actually quite an important movie. After years of movies and TV shows — not to mention the news media — focusing on terrorism, warfare, dictatorships, poverty, misogyny when it comes to the Middle East, here’s a film that offers a more balanced view. Yes, the region, and specifically Yemen, face tremendous challenges, but there are also many parts of the Middle East that are modern, tolerant melting pots populated by forward-thinking people who reject extremism. With the character of Sheikh Muhammad, Beaufoy and director Hallström, offer up an incredibly positive Arab character — something in short supply in our stereotype-glutted media landscape — and a vision of a nation trying to move beyond its violent history. It doesn’t gloss over the very real challenges that Yemen faces, terrorism among them, but it also doesn’t define this region by violence. In that regard, it’s the anti-Zero Dark Thirty.
6. It’s a Damn Good Movie
McGregor and Blunt spark with screwball verve, Hallström luxuriates in beautiful landscapes, and Beaufoy offers up a quixotic quest about achieving beauty and contentment under impossible conditions. It’s a cliché to say it, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen really is one of the best “feel good” movies of the year. No wonder the Golden Globes acknowledged it.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: CBS Films]