By turns whimsically humorous and intelligently sentimental, but also infused with a pungent air of working-class realism, “On a Clear Day” aims to be a seriocomic crowd-pleaser on the order of “The Full Monty.” Engaging tale of renewal, redemption and reconciliation might be too squarely on the nose for some jaded tastes, but less cynical auds — especially the 35-plus demographic — could respond enthusiastically. Word of mouth definitely will determine the difference between arthouse niche and mainstream breakout for this U.K.-produced pic, which Focus Features acquired at Sundance for U.S. release.
Backed by an impressively strong ensemble, lead Peter Mullan does most of the dramatic heavy lifting as Frank, a 55-year-old Glasgow shipyard worker who’s “made redundant” during a wave of layoffs. Despite trying to appear upbeat and unperturbed, Frank finds himself bereft of purpose and short on options.
He feels humiliated when he visits a job center to fill out unemployment forms, and his shame deepens when his employment adviser turns out to be Angela (Jodhi May), his sympathetic daughter-in-law. Frank flees the building, only to be felled outside by a panic attack.
The embarrassment doesn’t end after he’s released from a hospital emergency room. In the lobby, he’s greeted by Joan (Brenda Blethyn), his supportive and visibly anxious wife, and Rob (Jamie Sives), his semi-estranged grown son.
Frank is appreciably more comfortable in the company of three friends: Eddie (Sean McGinley), his closest confidant; Danny (Billy Boyd), an antic younger fellow; and Norman (Ron Cook), a faintly prissy but ever-reliable comrade. The four buddies regularly congregate at the public swimming pool. When Danny makes a passing quip about swimming from Dover to France “on a clear day,” the casual remark has a powerful impact on Frank.
Partly to give himself a sense of direction and partly because he has nothing better to do, Frank announces his intent to swim the English Channel. Once they get over their initial shock, his friends agree to aid in his training regimen.
Scripter Alex Rose does a smooth job of brightening the earnestly serious plot with elements that range from impishly daft to broadly comical. First-time feature helmer Gaby Dellal never allows the audience to lose sight of dead-serious emotional stakes at the heart of the matter. But she never pushes too hard, not even while gradually revealing details of long-ago tragedy that forever shaped Frank and his relationship with Rob.
Just as important, Dellal milks the funny business for maximum laughs without making any of the central characters devolve into caricatures.
Mullan (whose own directing credits include “Orphans” and “The Magdalene Sisters”) is unaffectedly affecting as he charges his performance with alternating currents of wounded pride, steely determination, raw vulnerability and middle-age virility. A not-insignificant detail: He looks like he really could swim the Channel.
Blethyn adds the right amount of vim and vinegar to her sweetly nurturing turn as Joan, who’s surreptitiously training to become a bus driver. For most of the pic’s first half, she tries to keep Frank in the dark about her ambitions, just as Frank remains mum about his plans to traverse the Channel. Not surprisingly, neither character is very successful when it comes to fooling the other.
Individually and collectively, McGinley, Boyd and Cook provide grace notes as well as comic relief. Benedict Wong springs some pleasant surprises as Chan, a shop owner who joins Team Frank during the training regime. As Rob, Sives limns a wealth of mixed emotions with a minimum of fuss.
Adroitly lensed by David Johnson in and around Glasgow, Dover and the Isle of Man, “On a Clear Day” benefits from vividly rendered specifics of custom and locale. (Opening scene seamlessly intercuts a real-life ship launching.) Colloquialisms and thick accents may sporadically befuddle Yank auds. Overall, though, pic is easily comprehensible and often compelling as its speaks in a universal language about the need to move forward when it’s too late to start over.