On a Clear Day: Gaby Dellal’s Scottish Crowd-Pleaser

Schmaltzily middlebrow and utterly predictable, Gaby Dellal’s On a Clear Day is crowd-pleaser that wants to be the Scottish The Full Monty, or the British Calendar Girls, with similar plot, working-class characters, and uplifting message about moral renewal through physical challenge.

Since the main characters are a husband and wife (played by Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn) well into their 50s, and their respective buddies are not much younger, this is middlebrow entertainment for audiences of a certain age, though it’s doubtful that the movie will be as successful as The Full Monty, or Billy Elliott for that matter.

For me, the most interesting element was not the derivative narrative but watching two good actors that once upon a time had made real working-class dramas propagating real leftist ideology: Peter Mullan in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe and Brenda Belthyn in Mike Leigh’s Oscar-nominated Secrets & Lies. (See Film Comment about the schizoid British film industry).

This time around, the protag is Frank (Mullan) a 55-year-old Glasgow shipyard worker who has lost his job during a wave of layoffs. Despite trying to appear upbeat and unperturbed, Frank finds himself bereft of purpose, depressed, and with a family to support.

Having lost a son twenty-five years ago, Frank has been grieving ever since the tragic accident, for which he blames himself. Along with his pain and alienation, there’s also humiliation, evident when he visits an employment office and is asked to fill out some bureaucratic forms. It doesn’t help that his job adviser is no other than Angela (Jodhi May), his sympathetic daughter-in-law.
Fleeing the center, Frank experiences a panic attack on the street and is rushed to the hospital. Support from his loving wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn) doesn’t help much since the marriage, we are told, has been sexually and emotionally barren. That Frank is estranged from his surviving adult son (Jamie Sives) makes matters worse, increasing his personal loneliness, social isolation”and desperate need for redemption.

As is the norm in such pictures, Frank is a different person with his male buddies, with whom he drinks and socializes. And as also is the norm, they represent a motley crew that’s both racially and age-wise diverse. Eddie (Sean McGinley), his closest confidant is cynical. Danny (Billy Boyd of Lord of the Rings trilogy), the youngest in the group, is rascal and whimsical. Norman (Ron Cook) appears to be a prissy, coward, and timid, but he is just as reliable as the others when needed.

Picture’s three “new” angles are that the women work, like Joan who’s in a male-dominated profession, bus driving; the story’s locale, the quartet of men meets regularly at the public swimming pool, and the tough physical challenge chosen for Frank to pull him out of his depression, not stripping but swimming across the UK-France Channel. Indeed, when Danny makes a passing quip about swimming from Dover to France “on a clear day,” the casual remark leaves imprint on Frank, at first beyond his willingness to admit.

With plenty of time on his hands, and faced with a task that is truly challenging, 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, talking daily swims in cold weather, hiking, and so on.
The writer Alex Rose tries to alternate comic scenes with more serious ones, but the humor, jokes, and sermon are all overly familiar. First-time feature helmer Gaby Dellal tries to brighten things up with faster speed during the raining sessions, but her staging of the family seasons is earnest and often dreary.

In moments, realizing that her story is just a variation of what has become a British sub-genre, made more for export (particularly US viewers) than local consumption, she goes for easy laughs and also panders (perhaps subconsciously or unconsciously) to her characters, most of which are stereotypes if not outright caricatures.

Mullan, who two years ago directed the tougher and superior The Magdalene Sisters, which won several prizes at the Venice Festival (and before that Orphans), is a solid, down-to-earth actor and his realistic performance slightly elevates the proceedings. Looking his age and exhibiting natural virility, Mullan actually projects the image of a man who could swim the Channel.

Blethyn, in a blessedly understated performance (after overacting for half a decade), doesn’t have much to do but be supportive; she is granted the customary reaction shots during the various family crises. Blethyn nails one scene with Frank, in which she discloses her professional held-in-secret ambition, thus achieving equality with Frank, who has kept her in the dark about his plan. Clearly, having been married for three decades, they are partners who can’t hold secrets or fool each other, not for too long.

As Frank’s chums, McGinley, Boyd and Cook provide much needed color and comic relief, and so does Chan (Benedict Wong), an Asian fish-and-chips shop owner, who joins Team Frank during his training. Jamie Sives (from Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) is effective as the surviving son who’s discriminated against by his father and whose love he seeks at all costs.

The film is nicely shot by cinematographer David Johnson, who gives the saga the right look to go along with its changing moods. Overcast skies turning into bright and sunny ones convey the characters’ alternating depressing and cheerful nature.

Though On A Clear Day is only 94 minute long, you feel every minute of it, even if you’re slightly rewarded at the end of Frank’s predictable odyssey.