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"The lads are borrowing a boat to help Frank swim the Channel"
on 9 July 2006
With all intents and purposes, On A Clear Day should be a terrific movie - the acting is strong, the direction is polished and the stark Glasgow, Dover, and Isle of Man landscapes also help toughen up the mood. Then why was my reaction to the movie so lukewarm? Perhaps it's because On A Clear Day is a retread of so much that has come before it.
Like a waterlogged and less persuasive iteration of The Full Monty, director Gaby Dellal's movie is another the tale of working-class heroes, the salt of the earth who lose their jobs but, by taking on a seemingly impracticable, even outlandish challenge, maintain their self-respect, and even get to squelch the ghosts of their past.
In this case, it's the - admittedly quite brilliant Peter Mullen - playing a retrenched ship builder who decides to swim the English Channel. At the same time he gets to tackle with estrangement with Rob, his adult son (Jamie Sives) and deal with issues of honesty with Joan his late middle-aged Scottish wife (Brenda Blethyn).
Frank (Mullen) just doesn't know what to do with himself after he gets laid off from the Glasgow shipbuilding company. Understandably upset Frank and his former colleagues spend their newly empty days facing the indignities of the employment offices, visiting bemused members of their extended families and swimming out their frustrations down at the city pool.
In fact, doing the daily laps becomes Frank's only source of consolation and with all this free time on his hands he decides at age fifty-five swimming the English Channel is a way to move on from his past. Frank is haunted by a tragedy involving a son he lost to the sea when the lad was seven and his relationship with his grown son Rob (Sives) is almost nonexistent, so Frank's decision to swim the Channel is a way of winning his heart back into the family.
The storyline is slight, almost textbook in its inexorableness and the film is riddled with cliché's. Also, Frank's aspiration - while no doubt admirable, doesn't make a lot of sense. If he wants to remake himself in the eyes of his family, he could hardly have chosen a more isolating pastime, and it is hardly going to help his family. It's also uncertain how he pays the bills while he spends every day at the pool. And why does he inexplicably lie to both his son and his wife?
Brenda Blethyn as Joan and Jamie Sives as Rob are both excellent in their supporting roles, but the subplots involving their characters seem tacked on, underwritten and ultimately rather trivial. All she wants is to learn to drive a bus. Of course, these are working-class people, but a movie needs a little more oomph than the dream of getting a bus license.
And likewise, Rob is supposed to be a stay-at-home dad - and the scenes where he's shown lovingly caring for his young twins - are indeed touching, but his conflict over not working is never really developed as well as it should be. Similarly, Frank's assortment of kooky, diffident friends are all served up as sort of stock stereotypes; of course they're loveable, but we've seen them all before in other similarly themed English films.
I guess the main reason to watch On A Clear Day is Peter Mullen's quite affecting and subtle performance as Frank. He's a crusty, sexy salt of the earth type, a man who has spent much of his life punching the clock with a time card. He's well and truly been imbued with the protestant work ethic and a kind of obstinate pride. Mullen delicately lets you see how Frank was able to push unhappy thoughts of his dead son from his mind as long as he was working, but with too much time on his hands, he is forced to confront these long buried emotions.
In the end, On A Clear day does attempt to make some pertinent social observations about following your dreams into late middle age, the effects of redundancy and unemployment, and the benefits of never giving up.
But the film does this in such a trite, corny and predicable way that certain scenes feel as though they have been padded out to the point of distraction, and it almost feels as though the film as a whole is threatening to swim away from you. Mike Leonard July 06.