The movie opens with Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a financial advisor, emailing a renowned fisheries expert asking for advice on a project to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen. She explains in the email that it is being bankrolled by a wealthy Yemeni Sheik that Harriet works for.
We then see Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), the fisheries expert, responding to her by saying the project is impossible because he believes Yemen is too harsh of an environment for the salmon to survive. He is writing this as his wife; Mary is getting ready for work. She is clearly very committed to her job, and after he finishes the email she casually mentions that in a few weeks she will be working in Geneva for a while. Since Mary didn’t consult with Dr. Jones before taking this assignment, this bothers him, but he reluctantly accepts her decision.
We then cut to the British Prime Minister’s press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas) who is watching a news headline that a mosque in Afghanistan was recently bombed by British or UN forces. Due to this recent event, as well as the growing unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, she promptly instructs her team of aides to find a story that would improve Anglo-Arab relations to make the current administration look better. Patricia sees one story about a recent European singer on tour in the Middle East, but the singer’s scantily clad image immediately causes her to nix the idea. She is then forwarded a small article about the project to introduce salmon fishing in the Yemen. As she is first looking it over, she gets a call from the Prime Minister’s office. Put on the spot, she suggests the salmon fishing story.
Dr. Jones is then seen walking to work at the government fisheries commission. He keeps a mini-fishing rod with a small fish on the end, and takes it out. He dabs the fish in ink, and casts it at an image of his boss on the other side of his cubicle, hitting the picture and leaving a mark. We see the picture is covered in marks- clearly he doesn’t like his boss. As he is deciding between pictures for the cover of a Fisheries journal, his boss walks in and tells him that Dr. Jones has to go meet with Harriet about the salmon project. Dr. Jones protests, but since his boss has orders from higher up in the government, Dr. Jones goes to see Harriet.
Dr. Jones shows up at Harriet’s office, and when they finally sit down, she starts talking to him about the project. He sort of cuts her off and says “water.” At first she thinks he wants something to drink, and as she starts to get him something he cuts her off again to explain the cold temperature requirements of the fish and how the Yemen doesn’t have much water, let alone a way to keep it cold. He says the only way they could get the water would be if someone could pull up water from underground to be cold, and if someone built a dam to keep the stream for the salmon going during the dry season. She then shows him a picture of the dam, proving that it was already built. She then proceeds to show him that her client has already thought about some of the difficulties, and it is clear she knows a lot more about what salmon need than he originally thought. He stops her for a minute and says water, and this time he means something to drink. For the rest of the conversation, he is talking about what an impossible idea it is, but the whole time Harriet is being very patient. He says he refuses to help them and leaves, hitting himself on the glass door on the way out by accident (she laughs).
Harriet meets her army boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison) outside her office building after work. He stays the night for the first time, and they are clearly very happy together, but have only been dating for a short time.
The next day Dr. Jones’ boss tells him that he either has to work on the project or he will be fired, noting that his pay will be double if he works on the project. Dr. Jones is still pissed, because he thinks the project will ruin his reputation in the scientific community, but he signs the agreement to work on the project anyway. After he leaves, Patricia calls Dr. Jones' boss and they banter for a bit about the project. Dr. Jones goes to see Harriet again and half-seriously, half-mockingly gives her a rough idea of everything they would need to do, referencing that he would like to talk to the engineers of the three gorges dam in China (important later). He then sarcastically estimates the project would cost $50 million dollars, and Harriet doesn’t blink. Dr. Jones hesitates, then says it might cost 50 million pounds, she still doesn’t show concern. Dr. Jones is starting to realize how rich the sheik is, and he makes some comment about how dumb the man must be to waste all this money just so he can fish in his backyard. Harriet comments that the Sheik is “a visionary” and someone that Dr. Jones will enjoy meeting. Dr. Jones is still skeptical.
Harriet is then in bed with Robert sleeping when he gets a call. He puts the phone down and says it was his call that he is being sent away to the war. He asks her to wait for him until he comes back, and she says yes.
Dr. Jones, Patricia, and Dr. Jones’ boss are at lunch at the fishery commission’s cafeteria. They are talking about the project, and they decide it will be the boss’s job to get permission from the environmental agency to get the 10,000 salmon they will need from British waters for the project.
Dr. Jones goes home, and his wife is packing up to leave for Geneva early. He is pretty startled, so he goes out to feed the fish in his pond, which he always does when he gets upset. She comes out to talk to him, and he reluctantly accepts that she is leaving for a while.
Harriet and Dr. Jones then go to meet the Sheik at his British home. He lives in the countryside, and has a river to fish for salmon on his property. When they show up, the butler gives Dr. Jones fishing gear to pass the time before the Sheik arrives. Excited, he goes out to fish. We see him struggling to climb over a rock when he sees the Sheik (Amr Waked) out fishing with his men nearby, Harriet is with them. He goes up and introduces himself. The Sheik is excited to meet the inventor of the “Willy-Jones,” a famous fishing lure. Harriet is impressed, and asks if he still names lures like that, to which he replies not anymore. The Sheik and Dr. Jones wade out into the water, and before Dr. Jones can say anything the Sheik says he knows his project seems crazy but he thinks fishing is a noble pursuit, and he thinks bringing salmon fishing to the region will help his people. They start talking about how fishing is an act of faith, but before they finish, the Sheik catches a fish (side note: apparently you can fly-fish for hours before even getting a nibble, so the fact that they caught one after being out for about 20 minutes is a really big deal).
Before dinner, Dr. Jones is dressed up in a nice suit that fits him perfectly, he sees Harriet in a really nice dress. He asks if it’s hers, and she says yes, which surprises him because the suit was given to him by the Sheik that day. He is surprised they knew his sizes so well, but Harriet admits she provided the size estimates. He then says that he is actually a size smaller waist than she estimated.
That night at dinner, the conversation of faith and science comes up before the toast, and the sheik is incredulous that Dr. Jones can be so into fishing yet claim to not be a man of faith, because fishing requires so much faith since you put so much time into it for relatively little outcome. After dinner, Harriet, Dr. Jones, and the Sheik are sitting by the fire. The sheik asks Harriet about if she is seeing anyone, and she explains her boyfriend is away in the war for an undetermined amount of time. The sheik then asks Dr. Jones about his wife, and he explains she is away in Geneva, so it isn’t a big deal, but you can sort of tell he is disappointed with her being gone too.
They get back to London, and Dr. Jones and Harriet start working well together on the project. It seems their visit to the Sheik got Dr. Jones excited about it. In the meantime, the boss is having a really hard time getting permission to get the fish from the environmental agency because they are afraid of the backlash from the country’s fishermen. Dr. Jones is at his office one day when Harriet shows up and explains that the Chinese engineers from the Three Gorges Dam are there due to a miscommunication, because earlier she thought Dr. Jones was serious when he said he wanted to talk to them. Dr. Jones asks them questions while Harriet translates using her rough Chinese, and they are both proud of each other when the meeting turns out to be a surprise success. As they are leaving the office, the boss comes over and introduces himself to Harriet and complains that he wasn’t introduced to the engineers. He sort of hits on Harriet while making fun of Dr. Jones, until Dr. Jones steps in and tells him off while ushering out Harriet. They decide to go to lunch to celebrate the meeting.
At lunch, Harriet tries to get Dr. Jones to have a glass of champagne, but he refuses, saying he hardly ever drinks, especially on a weekday. He then makes a comment about how since his wedding was on a Friday; he allowed himself a small glass of champagne. She takes him seriously, and seeing that his comment sort of weirded her out, he says he is joking, and she laughs (though it is somewhat unclear whether he was actually joking. I’ll take this time to mention that Dr. Jones’ clearly has some social difficulties which I don’t think my spoiler does justice to, more on this later). Dr. Jones then pulls out a notepad and talks about working during lunch, and his motivation to work on the project takes her by surprise. As she is getting her stuff out to work, she takes a call, and is clearly shocked by what the person told her. She runs out of the restaurant, and Dr. Jones is confused. The next scene is Harriet outside looking out on the river, and Dr. Jones comes out to meet her. She explains the call said her boyfriend Robert is MIA.
We next see that Harriet has been taking off work since she got the call and hasn’t left her apartment. Dr. Jones leaves her a message about the project, but she doesn’t take it. As Dr. Jones is on his way to his office, he is crossing a bridge when he gets an idea and starts going the other way, against the crowd (meant to be like a salmon swimming upstream).
Dr. Jones shows up at Harriet’s house and sits down on her couch and starts getting something out of his briefcase. Harriet is pissed because she thinks he wants to work on the project, and she rips into him, saying his is insensitive and accusing him of having Asperger’s syndrome (she actually says it). He remains un-phased by all of this, and when she is done with her rant, he pulls out a sandwich that he bought/made for her and says he only came by to check on her and make sure she was eating. She breaks down and hugs him, and apologizes about what she said. (At some point during this scene he makes a remark that people with Asperger’s are really bad at joking at an attempt at self-deprecation, which made me think that other times in the movie when he says he’s joking he really isn’t - if he actually has Asperger’s, which is left ambiguous). He does implore her to come back to see the Sheik with him, and when she isn’t looking he takes a yellow thread off her couch (important later).
They do go to the Yemen with the Sheik, and he shows them around. A group of angry Yemeni’s comes up to the Sheik at some point and yell at him for bringing the evil Western ways to their land (important later). While they are there, Dr. Jones and Harriet grow closer, and Dr. Jones notes that the well water given to them by a local woman is cold, which would be good for the salmon.
Meanwhile, attempts by the boss to get the 10,000 wild salmon have failed, in part due to a campaign mounted by British fishermen to oppose the plan, which is getting a lot of attention. Patricia is at her house talking on the phone about the situation when a package falls out of her freezer; she then reads the label and says she has an idea.
Next we see Harriet, Patricia, and Dr. Jones visiting the Sheik at his countryside estate. Patricia explains that they can’t get wild salmon and will have to deal with farmed salmon, which pisses off the sheik. Its clear Patricia knows nothing about fishing, and Dr. Jones tries to mediate the conversation. They all go to visit a salmon farm and this further irritates the sheik because he sees how the salmon are breed in captivity, and even Dr. Jones is doubtful that the farm fish will be able to survive in the wild. It seems the project is off. Patricia tells Dr. Jones to go back to his job at the Fisheries department, but he says he quits on the spot.
Patricia leaves and Dr. Jones and Harriet are still at the Sheiks. One night, Harriet is watching the news and a guy is reporting to parliament that the recent operation that Robert was part of had no survivors. Dr. Jones happens to be in the room and gets out of Harriet’s way when she goes upstairs. That night, Dr. Jones goes to Harriet’s room because he can hear her crying and he comforts her. The next morning he wakes up in her bed and sneaks out before she wakes up.
Dr. Jones and the Sheik go fishing, and he and convinces him to give the farmed salmon a try, even though Dr. Jones’ science background says it probably won’t work. The Sheik likes this because he thinks its Dr. Jones “faith” like they discussed earlier. Harriet is going for a walk and spots the two fishing. As she approaches them, she sees a man hiding with a gun, one of the angry Yemeni’s from earlier. He reveals himself and says something in his native language, but before he can shoot the sheik, Dr. Jones does a cast and gets the hook to scratch the gunman’s face, so he misses even though a shot is fired. The gunman is taken away by one of the Sheiks’ bodyguards. The sheik says he owes Dr. Jones his life, and Harriet is impressed.
They get back from the Sheiks, and Dr. Jones' wife surprises him by flying home for the weekend. He explains he quit his job at the Fisheries department works for the Sheik now, and that makes her mad. Knowing his habitual ways, she suspects that something other than the work caused him to make these decisions, and she instantly accuses him of being attracted to Harriet, whom she looked up on the internet and saw was attractive. Dr. Jones gets pissed because he says he hasn’t done anything with her and that she is his friend. He storms out to his pond.
At his pond, his wife comes up and calmly asks if Dr. Jones loves Harriet. He hesitates and is unsure of what to say, which sends a pretty clear sign to Mary that he does. She says this must be his midlife crisis and that in six months she will come back to him, then she leaves the house.
They all go back to the Yemen and keep working, and the project is nearing completion. Helicopters show up carrying canisters with the fish, and they are all excited to find the fish survived the journey. Harriet and Dr. Jones go swimming one night in their clothes, and Dr. Jones asks Harriet if they would ever work as a couple. She says yes, but asks for him to give her some time, to which he says OK, but you can tell he is really excited that she even said there was a possibility.
Meanwhile, back in London, Patricia is getting her team ready for the big PR trip to the Yemen. She is shown having a humorous iChat with the foreign minister, asking him about his fishing abilities. He says doesn’t know how to, but she says he better learn before the trip. Around that time, she gets a call that they found a survivor from the military operation that they thought had none, and it turns out to be Robert. Patricia then asks them not to tell Harriet that he is alive yet.
The project is finishing up, and the press arrives at the Yemen site with Patricia and the foreign minister. Sometime after an initial press conference with Patricia the foreign minister, Harriet and Dr. Jones are sitting together on the docks alone. Dr. Jones presents Harriet with a fly he named after her, and it’s called the Chetwode-Talbot Beauty or something (you can tell he used the string he found in her apartment to make it). She thanks him, and as they are sharing a moment a lone camo-colored helicopter comes out of nowhere and lands pretty close to them. It kicks up a lot of dust, but you can see a single man step out. It’s Robert! Harriet runs to him while the press snaps tons of pictures. Dr. Jones clenches his fist with the lure in it so hard that it cuts him.
Harriet and Robert do a press conference with the foreign minister and Patricia, and Harriet is clearly a little uncomfortable by his return. The press has them kiss, and Dr. Jones watches the whole thing from a distance with the Sheik. The sheik apologizes to Dr. Jones, who says it’s not a big deal, but the Sheik says “nevertheless, I am sorry,” because he knew from watching them that he loved her.
That night, Harriet and Robert share a tent-bed, but she asks for some time and Robert says no problem. Dr. Jones gets a text from Mary asking him to come back, but he pretty much says it’s over in a reply.
The next morning, Robert and Dr. Jones are up early, and are alone together outside. Without looking at him, Dr. Jones straight up tells Robert he loves Harriet and wishes Robert hadn’t come back. Robert sarcastically apologizes for not being dead in a ditch, and Dr. Jones says he doesn’t accept his apology. Robert is pretty miffed by this but doesn’t really react, and Dr. Jones leaves.
Everyone is outside, as they are about to open the gates to let the salmon out of their pods. The Sheik gives a small speech explaining that one of the reasons he built this hydraulic setup with the dam was to irrigate the land to provide for his people, so that Yemen might be a better place for future generations. Then they open the pods. At first the salmon aren’t really doing anything, but then one fish decides to swim upstream, and the others start to follow him. Dr. Jones and Harriet hug in excitement, which Robert notices.
Later, the Sheik, Dr. Jones, Robert, and the Foreign minister are all fishing together, and the minister and Robert are trying to set up a good picture. While this is happening, some terrorists break into the dam and kill a guard before messing with the controls. We then see a wave of water heading downstream threatening to flood the valley. Robert and the foreign minister get taken up by the water, while downstream Dr. Jones and the sheik struggle against the waves. They cling to a rock, and the Sheik lets Dr. Jones climb up first because the Sheik wants to repay his debt. Dr. Jones helps the sheik up to the rock.
Later we see the whole place is in ruins. The fish are dead, and someone’s body is being carried away. Robert, the foreign minister, the sheik, and Dr. Jones survived. Later, Robert, the Sheik, Dr. Jones, and Harriet are sitting around a fire outside. The Sheik remarks that he knows who did it, but he won’t go after them for revenge, that he will just have to rebuild it and work on getting more community support next time around.
The next day everyone is leaving. Robert and Harriet are about to leave, when Robert suggests Harriet say goodbye to Dr. Jones. He then tells Harriet that while thinking about seeing her again kept him alive in the desert, she doesn’t owe him anything. Harriet then runs over to say goodbye to Dr. Jones. It starts off as an awkward goodbye, with neither commenting about their romantic feelings for each other. Harriet asks what Dr. Jones is going to do. He explains that he has no idea, because all the fish here are dead and he doesn’t have anything to go back to in England. They are silent for a little, and Dr. Jones quickly states that he will be the one to make the first move and abruptly turns to leave. As he is walking away, the Sheik, standing on a nearby rock, yells for Dr. Jones to look at the water. At that moment, a salmon jumps out of the water, proving that some of the fish are still alive. Filled with hope, Dr. Jones tells Harriet he will stay and help them rebuild, making sure to involve the local communities. Harriet asks if he will need an assistant, and he says yes before he realizes she was talking about herself. He then says he needs a partner, and they hug. Seeing this, Robert decides to leave on his own.
Later, Patricia is iChatting the British Prime minister about what an idiot the Foreign Minister is. They joke that they should sack him or find another job in the government for him. Patricia suggests fisheries, and the Prime Minister agrees.
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