Over here in America, it seems we just cannot get enough of the gentle shenanigans of average, everyday Brits. If they are slightly older and perhaps finding themselves financially strapped and driven to eyebrow-raising lengths by the hard times, well, so much the better. Into this proud lineage comes On a Clear Day a charming, if slight, bit of fluff from across the pond that has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly-titled Barbra Streisand musical from the ‘70s.Peter Mullan
plays Frank, a quiet, middle-aged Scot who is left floundering when he is laid off from his shipbuilding job. He embarks on a mission, seemingly on a lark, to swim the English Channel in an effort to give himself purpose and shed personal demons that have plagued him for years. Admittedly, this is quite thin, plotwise, but if we learned anything but a new dance routine from The Full Monty, it’s that working-class British fellows made redundant can be remarkably entertaining in keeping themselves occupied. Article continues below
Though he staunchly refuses to tell his family anything about his intentions, Frank has a small clique of friends – former coworkers, mostly – serving as his motley training crew, headed by a put-upon Chinese fish-and-chips vendor (Benedict Wong
) and given hyper energy by the cheerfully hapless Danny (Billy Boyd
). They are caught up in Frank’s determination to change his life, and predictably inspired to do something new with their own, and it is remarkably sweet and uplifting in a straightforward and non-saccharine way, a rarity these days.
First-time feature director Gaby Dellal
has crafted a dutifully small and endearing bit of fluff, only faltering briefly with some easily-forgiven flaws. She does fall victim to a hallmark of young directors – the need to be unnecessarily flashy – with her shooting of action via its reflection in a small domed mirror or her slow pans of an ordinary boat.
Also, the film is not adept at offering fleshed-out logic. Why this unassuming Scottish man takes on a personal mission to swim the Channel, or what he hopes it will accomplish – and what it does ultimately accomplish – is left unaddressed and open to interpretation. But if you accept the pull of those crazy urges we get from time to time – the desire to do something stupid, and hard, and to revel in a feeling of true accomplishment – then that is probably sufficient in the way of movie logic.
What gives the film layers and makes it so watchable is the extremely capable acting. Mullan (My Name is Joe, Young Adam) is an immensely likeable actor, and his Frank is an amiable and capable fellow, but he can also be profoundly frustrating. Being taciturn is one thing, but he often seems to outright ignore his wife (the adorably floopy Brenda Blethyn
). And he is deeply scarred by the death of his son nearly 25 years ago, but he’s so distant from his surviving son that it borders on rude. This persistent haze that surrounds poor Frank, and mires him into such melancholic inaction, is what prevents On a Clear Day from being a straight-up comedy. All of the characters are witty and quirky (though not aggressively so) and have their moments of amusing antics, but they are also each battling a very real sadness, and the film does well in striking a balance between the two.
There is little about On a Clear Day that is especially profound or innovative, to be sure. The most effusive praise it will likely garner is that it is genuinely cute and sweet without becoming twee or simplistic. That said, there is certainly a place – and a market – for films like these. I certainly know what I’ll be telling my Auntie to see the next time she tells me they don't make “nice movies” anymore.