Given that Lasse Hallstrom was working with source material that splices together sharp political satire and gooey domestic drama, the director had every reason to fail in his mission to bring Paul Torday‘s bestselling novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, to the big screen. Instead, he ended up delivering the first breakout hit of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, sparking a distribution bidding that ended with a high-profile, seven-figure deal with CBS Films.
That kind of happy ending is all the more impressive (and unexpected) given that next to nothing in the past decade of Hallstrom’s filmography indicates that he had any intention of making a film that wasn’t marinated in his special recipe of cliche-spiked schmaltz. (See: “Dear John,” “Hachi: A Dog’s Tail,” “The Hoax”). Not that we ever truly lost hope in his abilities: “My life as a Dog” will always hold a place among our most treasured moviegoing memories. But we had little reason to expect success on this level, with “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” suddenly breaking out from the pack of Oscar ponies in contention at Toronto.
Oscar voters have a longstanding love affair with uplifting dramas, which could prove to be a strong selling point for Yemen, which centers around an ichthyologist (Ewan McGregor) hired by a wealthy Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) to stock an inhospitable desert stream with salmon in order to realize his dream of of introducing Middle Easterners to the spiritual and gustatory pleasures of catching and eating the pink-fleshed fish. While in Yemen, the sheik’s assistant (Emily Blunt) helps to widen the gulf between the scientist and his brittle, needy wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). Awards buzz has already started to build around the film, particularly Thomas’ performance and the script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire“).
But what of Ewan McGregor? Over the past few years, McGregor has turned in a series of unassailably great performances. And yet McGregor has yet to receive the critical serenade he so richly deserves. In fact, we’d like to nominate Ewan McGregor as Hollywood’s most underrated actor. The dubious honor has been up for grabs since Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar two years ago for “Crazy Heart.”
McGregor is one of the most versatile actors working today. Over the past few years, he’s worked constantly, adding to the menagerie of disparate characters to life on the big screen. He played the soft-spoken southern beau who falls for a very flamboyant Jim Carrey in “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Next came his pitch-perfect performance as the scribe under siege in the title role of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.” In the cerebral science fiction fable, “A Perfect Sense,” which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, McGregor delivers a viscerally agonizing portrayal of a chef who has fallen for an epidemiologist (Eva Greene) in the midst of an epidemic which is robbing victims of their five senses. Each time, he’s unfailingly good. Each time, no one seems to notice, particularly those in a position to bestow awards upon him. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar. He’s been completely ignored by both the Golden Globes and the Baftas. If there’s another British actor of his caliber who has been more unjustly denied the love and respect of his award-giving peers, we can’t think of one.
Mark our words: This oversight won’t last. The thing about McGregor is that he keeps getting better, both in terms of his acting ability and the projects he chooses. It’s hard to imagine the McGregor of today electing to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” prequels. Given that he’s lined up a slew of projects with A-list filmmakers (including Steven Soderbergh and Bryan Singer), it’s hard to imagine this won’t become a self-correcting problem very soon. Or perhaps “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” will distinguish itself as the film that sends McGregor on his long-overdue trip to the podium. Whenever it comes, McGregor’s award will be long overdue.
Can you name another actor today who has gone more underrated and unrecognized than Ewan McGregor? While you’re at it, name your favorite Ewan McGregor film and tell us why it is.