A series of strongly worded letters make up the novel on which this film, a gently comedic reflection on our officious hero Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), is based. He's not the type to just go with the flow, especially when this fisheries scientist is asked to create a salmon run in the Yemen desert. And yet, the venture brings unexpected gains in the romance department.
At first glance, the impish McGregor doesn't seem a natural fit for the part of a stuffed shirt, but he works well with Emily Blunt's Harriet, who facilitates the dream with money, sense and good old-fashioned charm. She represents a wealthy Arab sheik, a keen angler and businessman (Amr Waked) who appears to have more stars in his eyes than dollar signs - both dare Jones to dream.
Apart from Jones's lack of imagination, there are other obstacles to happiness - Mrs Jones, for example, broadly portrayed as a cold hard career woman (Rachael Stirling). It's a contrivance of the book that means we don't begrudge Jones the fancy of being with Harriet, but by making the women so contrastingly different (i.e. good vs evil), the moral dilemma doesn't feel so pressing.
There's more to brood over from Harriet's point of view. No sooner has she fallen for a hunky soldier (Tom Mison) than he's being posted to Afghanistan. She promises to wait for him and she stays true to that, even when he goes missing in action. Jones doesn't seem like a serious threat, though. The major source of frustration remains his own tendency to stay inside the boundaries.
But this is where McGregor's movie star charisma pays off. A more obvious-looking wimp would be annoying to watch - always doing the right thing, never bowing to temptation - but because McGregor does have the twinkle of a potential ladies' man, his noble conduct speaks more of strength than weakness. It's his outspokenness early on that proves there's room to grow.
Blunt plays her part with sensitivity and just a touch of mischief, only giving the doctor a mild ribbing for being overly formal - particularly when he addresses her as Ms Chetwode-Talbot in casual conversation. This is, in a sense, a comedy of manners where the clash of cultures is more starkly felt between Jones and Harriet than it is with Jones and the Sheikh.
Once the action moves from London to the Yemen, the lighting softens and so does Jones's outlook. The symbolism is heavy (water flows like the wealth of possibilities) and the Sheikh comes across as a tribal stereotype - a font of old-world wisdom. Still, it's difficult to be cynical. Chocolat helmer Lasse Hallström has a way of blending the ethereal and the mundane that truly inspires.
Kristin Scott Thomas balances the scales with a brilliantly funny and strangely endearing turn as the PM's spin doctor. She drives the Yemeni scheme forward for propaganda purposes, but she's so cheerful in her approach, it really does bring home the moral of the story - anything goes if you believe. That's not to say that things go swimmingly in the end, but the mood remains uplifting.