The Discovery Channel

Washington City Paper | April 17, 2006
Gaby Dellal’s On a Clear Day, one of those inspirational stories about working-class sods who cure their doldrums by undertaking a quirky challenge—in this case, swimming the English Channel—might be derivative as hell. (I’ll spot you The World’s Fastest Indian, Calendar Girls, and The Full Monty. Let’s see who hits 10 first.) But when you’re mired in muck—cinematic or otherwise—it could be just the thing.

Writer Alex Rose fills the movie with just enough humor and heartbreak to keep its feel-goodness from making you gag. The story focuses on Frank (Peter Mullan), a 55-year-old Glaswegian shipbuilder who has just been laid off. He’s lost without the job, miserable about the uncertainty of his future, and too proud even to fill out an application when he finally visits an employment agency.

Naturally, Frank also has a troubled relationship with his grown son, Rob (Jamie Sives)—ever since Rob’s younger brother drowned when both were children. Frank’s wife, Joan (the wonderful Brenda Blethyn), takes care to buy gifts for Rob’s twin boys and to shower her son and grandchildren with attention. Yet she’s a little down herself, occupied with little more than puttering around the house and unable to connect with her unhappy husband. Both Frank and Joan finally find projects to occupy their time, though: Joan wants to become a bus driver; Frank’s gonna cross the channel via “body boat.” Neither knows about the other’s plans.

There aren’t any surprises in On a Clear Day, and in a few cases the filmmakers launch their messages like bricks: In a library, for example, Frank runs into the owner of a local grease joint (Benedict Wong), who asks him, “What are you looking for?” The answer, of course, is “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s not in here.” And in addition to the distant husband, worried wife, and estranged son, there are the requisite ragtag pals: Impish Danny (The Lord of the Rings’ Billy Boyd), the semiphobic Norman (Ron Cook), and Eddie (Sean McGinley), the group’s cynical voice of reason. On the plus side, the characters interact like regular folk instead of constantly cracking wise, which makes their little jokes even more enjoyable. (When they’re told that the only local with an available boat to help with the swim is named Mad Bob, Eddie dryly comments, “He doesn’t sound normal.” Then Danny chimes in: “He sounds fuckin’ nuts!”)

The performances, too, are better than we should expect. Blethyn is the more comedic of the couple, whether her Joan is whoopsing her way to an empty seat when she’s late for drivers’ orientation or giving increasingly quizzical looks as she opens the door to one after another of Frank’s friends, there to plan the event she still doesn’t know about. But Mullan is this movie’s rock: His Frank doesn’t speak much, but his face—quivering at the employment office, stoic when he runs into his son, crossed by an ever-so-slight smile of awe when he watches a crippled child joyfully swim without assistance—is a marvel of expressiveness.

Resilience, obviously, is the Big Message of On a Clear Day. But it’s delivered neatly and pretty much painlessly. If you’re looking for something more cynical or realistic, well, it’s not in here.

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