Frank Redmond (Peter Mullan, "Session 9," "Young Adam") lives overlooking the banks of the River Clyde where he's made his living in a Glasgow shipyard all his life. Frank's disdain for new management costs him his job and it is not until it's gone that he realizes it has acted as a life jacket, keeping him afloat after having lost a young son in a drowning accident decades earlier. Estranged from his living son Rob (Jamie Sives, "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself") and too bottled up to confide in his wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn, "Pride & Prejudice"), Frank secretly sets a goal for himself - to swim the English Channel - in debuting feature director Gaby Dellal's "On a Clear Day."
Screenwriter Alex Rose buoys his inspirational sports story with a comical male buddy subplot (with roots in Spain's "Mondays in the Sun") and a family ripe for knocking down walls built in the wake of a tragedy. Director Dellal does nothing to make this material seem the least bit fresh, nor does he achieve the strong sense of place that director Shona Auerbach did in her similarly themed "Dear Frankie," but despite their decided lack of Glaswegian accents, Dellal's cast is engaging enough to involve us in this waterlogged but well visualized tale.
The film begins, oddly enough, with Frank's family celebrating the christening of the last ship built under his supervision while he cleans out his office. Frank continues to hang out with his old mates, each of whom brings a different perspective to his situation. Best buddy Eddie (a fine Sean McGinley, "Gangs of New York," PBS's "Bleak House"), who has held onto a lowly job at the yard, thinks Frank should have swallowed some pride while young Danny Campbell (Billy Boyd, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), who looks up to Frank like a father, thinks he can do no wrong. Their fourth wheel, Norman (Ron Cook, "The Merchant of Venice") is too timid to go either way. Meanwhile Joan is upset that Frank is exhibiting the same closed behavior he did when their young son died and Rob is convinced that his father is ashamed that he has chosen to remain home caring for his sons while his wife Angela (Jodhi May, "A World Apart," "The House of Mirth") works. Frank closes them all out and focuses on his swimming routine until a chance word from Danny sets his mind on the Channel. He recruits an unlikely coach and partner in Chan (Benedict Wong, "Dirty Pretty Things"), the 'silent Chinaman' who runs the local chippie, but one by one his other buddies come around to form an entire support team. Comic situations ensue until rumor reaches Rob, then Joan, who is keeping a secret of her own.
Frank and his buddies' escapades have enough humor to keep them lively viewing - a frigid dip into Loch Lomond, encounters with weird characters like Merv the Perv (Tony Roper, "The Wicker Man") and Mad Bob (Paul Ritter, "The Libertine") - but the inspirational nature of the film also clings to those guys better than it does to our hero. Eddie grows some backbone and quits his demeaning job, Danny asks a girl out, Norman overcomes his seasickness and Chan makes a verbal stand for himself. Frank's inspiration, however, a little boy with shriveled legs who swims in his pool, doesn't parallel his own story and his obstacle, his son's drowning death, comes too late and is too distant. Frank and Rob's reconnection is very well handled, suspensefully integrated into the film's climax, but while Frank's distance is believably explained one cannot put aside Rob's perception of his father. This is, after all, a man whose work defined him.
Mullan, looking appreciably fit for his 55 year-old character, puts Frank across with his intense and gruff determination without losing sympathy. He's working class machismo and family man tightly wound. Also excellent are McGinley, who won an Irish IFTA award, and Boyd, who shows a light touch with self-effacing comedy here. Busty Blethyn provides her dependable brand of warmth combined with flustered comedy, adjusting the volume just right for Joan Redmond. One does wonder, though, if accents were purposefully muted for American audiences - I had no idea the film was set in Scotland until the Clyde was mentioned.
Cinematography by David Johnson ("Resident Evil," "Alien Vs. Predator") is clear indeed, carrying the nip of the air in its seaside scenes. Dellal and his editors effectively and efficiently achieve both moments of real horror (Frank witnesses a coworker's self-mutilation, which we thankfully do not) and visual wit (an empty chip bag adheres to Frank's proudly bared, greased body)
"On a Clear Day" is well made and well acted but it lacks a unique spark. It's a nice film, but not a necessary one.
Robin did not see this film.
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