On A Clear Day

Lovely character work in great little drama, incidentally about swimming the English Channel.

Released in 2005, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 16 Sep 2005 by Scott Morris
On A Clear Day image

What? Two British films in as many weeks? That's about two thirds of this years' quota, isn't it? At any, rate, the more important aspect of On A Clear Day is that it's rather good, regardless of providence.

Frank (Peter Mullan) finds himself the latest victim of the slow death of the Clydeside ship building industry suffering the indignity of redundancy which from personal experience stings, certainly for anyone with the merest sliver of a work ethic. Already damaged from a decades long rift with his son Rob (Jamie Sives, of the transcendent Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself), this might have been enough to push him over the edge to a rather dark place were it not for a channeling of his energies into an already existing interest in swimming. Frank decides to swim the English Channel.

Madness, for someone his age, you might think. Certainly too much to tackle by himself. Good job his old workmates Norman (Ron Cook), Eddie (Sean McGinley) and Danny (Billy Boyd, again in full comedy sidekick mode) are along to variously help and hinder the training plan of local chip shop owner Chan (Benedict Wong). In the pure mechanical sense of the plotline, this plugs along in an enjoyable enough but largely unremarkable fashion.

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That's not the whole story, though. On A Clear Day's masterstroke has little more than tangential relation to the efforts in the water. As you may perhaps expect with this group of actors, by far and away the most enjoyable parts stem from the interplay of the characters, well written, well acted and well, really good. Again as with Wilbur, and that's not a comparison we make lightly round these parts, it manages to make it's lead characters so familiar that you'd swear blind you'd met them somewhere. Frank's obstinate bullishness, Rob's melancholy alienation, hell, even Danny's good-natured, dim-witted banter, all combine with subtle clues and sublime scripting to make everyone, even the supporting characters, feel like real, fleshed out people, not one dimensional soundbite merchants.

A lot hinges on Peter Mullan's performance, indeed the film would be pointless without it. As you've probably gathered, Mullan delivers in spades with the sort of depressing dependability whether behind or in front of the camera that leaves me feeling rather like the talentless hack that I actually am. It's a layered and affecting if rather gruff outing for him, showing enough vulnerability and weakness to contrast with his hard-headed outlook that serves as his default state. This keeps Frank an interesting character, an one it's very easy to empathise with.

His relationship with his emotionally distant son Rob is what this film really ends up being about, and despite the relatively minimal screentime allotted to Jamie Sives he puts in a showing that's just as complete and charismatic as Mullan. If there's a flaw to be found it's more with a script that leaves Rob slightly humourless, purely down to a lack of time rather than any fault on Sives or director Gaby Dellal's part. His understandable frustration with Frank tends to dominate his character, and it's only a few moments with his family that show his lighter side.

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And On A Clear Day isn't afraid to show it's lighter side. Rob's kids prove to be charming, and while it'd be really, really nice to see Billy Boyd do something radically different from the Weegee Naive Slightly Dim Comedy Sidekick schtick returning from the Lord of the Rings flicks, it's a role he's pretty much got down pat by this point. This movie cares almost as much about it's minor characters as the leads, and by the end of the film anyone who's had more than three lines to speak over the course can lay claim to some degree of character development. I can't remember the last time I could say that about any film.

Oddly, on reflection the weakest part of the film come almost invariably when Frank's in the water. It certainly gives a break from all of this character based drama which may otherwise have had serious pacing issues, but unlike Frank's front crawl it feels as though it's treading water during this time. Still, if the 'swimming' part of the film was excised then this film would have no reason to exist, and that would be a Bad Thing.

This is the sort of movie they almost don't make these days. Intelligent, charming, consummately executed by everyone involved in the project and uplifting without ever resorting to schmaltz and cloying sentimentality lesser films would crowbar in during the final act. It's an effective and touching character piece at the same time as being a very funny, lighthearted comedy, like a cross between Chariots of Fire and Rab C. Nesbitt. Comes highly recommended.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Gaby Dellal
Cast list:
Peter Mullan (Frank)
Brenda Blethyn (Joan)
Billy Boyd (Danny)
Ron Cook (Norman)
Shaun Dingwall (The Observer)
Jodhi May (Angela)
Sean McGinley (Eddie)
Paul Ritter (Mad Bob)
Jamie Sives (Rob)
Anne Marie Timoney (Michelle)
Benedict Wong (Chan)