Idol Chatter

When I saw the title of the film “On a Clear Day,” my first impulse was to complete the old phrase–“you can see forever.” But this movie isn’t about seeing forever; it’s a small, intimate look at ordinary people who deal with forces much larger than themselves. Frank (Peter Mullan) is a lifelong factory worker who has recently lost his job, he’s estranged from his adult son, and he’s listless in his marriage to wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn). So, to combat his boredom and depression in forced retirement, he comes up with the idea of swimming the English Channel.

Immediately, I’m thinking of other British working-class-triumph films like “Billy Elliot” and “The Full Monty.” Sure enough, once the movie starts, the other staples of this genre begin to appear. There’s the motley cast of friends, including the lifelong best buddy, the out-of-place foreigner (here, a Chinese shopowner who rarely speaks but is secretly wise), and the young ne’er-do-well who just wants to fit in (“Lord of the Rings” alum Billy Boyd). There’s the wife who keeps a secret from her husband, although it’s a pretty tame one–she’s taking classes to get her license as a city bus driver. In true spiritual fashion, she has to take the test three times before passing.

Whether you’re watching Frank go through a grueling training process or watching as he tries in vain to have a conversation with his son (a stay-at-home-dad who thinks his father is ashamed of him), you’re always hoping he succeeds. Peter Mullan wisely doesn’t play Frank like a hero. Frank makes mistakes and often mistreats the people around him. His goal of swimming the Channel is also a way for other characters to make life changes of their own, whether it’s rekindling a marriage or standing up to discrimination.

“On a Clear Day” is a feel-good movie and isn’t the least bit embarrassed about it. Gaby Dellal’s direction is straightforward up until the very end of the film when she lets symbolism go a little bit too far. The most agonizing plot detail–that Frank and Joan had another son who drowned as a child–is never given the proper emotional levity. It’s used as a hamfisted device to explain first Frank’s motivation for swimming and second his disconnection from surviving son Rob.

“On a Clear Day” is at its cinematic and spiritual best as a film about rebirth. The role of water in the story is multifold. The denouement of Frank and Rob’s argument with each other comes when Rob jumps into a pool with all his clothes on. Frank’s redemption is also found in water–the cold, black water of the Channel–as his family stands on the French shore hoping he makes it across. There are some beautiful shots of Frank alone in the water, his arms and legs moving in time. It’s a shame the film can’t just let Frank swim in peace, because the story would be much more powerful if he could.

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