On a Clear Day
directed by Gaby Dellal
(Focus, 2005)

It's 15 minutes into On a Clear Day, a film about a middle-aged guy deciding to exorcise some demons by swimming the English Channel, and I'm thinking, "Where have I seen this guy before?"

Not the character, Frank, per se -- we've seen him (and, in some form, lots of this movie) before: Scottish (in this case), unemployed, estranged from his family, not a great communicator.

But the guy playing Frank, Peter Mullan: He and Brenda Blethyn, who plays his wife, Joan, are phenomenal in service of a movie that was, well, nice enough -- with some great spots -- but just doesn't evolve into a fully dimensional piece of work.

Blethyn has been wonderful in such films as Lovely & Amazing and Secrets & Lies.

But Mullan? His name may not ring any bells, but you've seen him in Young Adam, as the barge owner cuckolded by Ewan MacGregor's character. He's been in Braveheart, too, and Trainspotting, Miss Julie and My Name is Joe, in which he's an alcoholic struggling through recovery.

None of them are particularly light and fluffy movies and, when you consider he wrote and directed (and acted in) The Magdalene Sisters, about the treatment of unwed pregnant girls in 1960s Ireland, it's a pretty impressive string.

On a Clear Day just doesn't seem to rise to that level, though Mullan and Blethyn, especially, are worth watching.

Mullan's Frank is a pretty self-contained guy. Years before, one of his two sons drowned, an accident for which he blames himself. His remaining son, now an adult with a family of his own, feels ignored; his wife is shut out from his daily life. Once he's let go from his job, Frank really has nothing left.

Except swimming laps at the health club. That soon becomes swimming the English Channel.

He doesn't tell his wife. He doesn't tell his son. He does tell his motley crew of former co-workers, buddies and the Asian store owner whom he believes doesn't speak English. (He does.)

Meanwhile, Joan is determined to fill her time by passing the bus drivers' test, and son Rob is a stay-at-home dad trying to corral twin sons. They're also trying to find their way in a minefield of conversations that can't be started; admissions that can't be made.

When they all finally meet up at the Channel, what we all know will happen by that point happens.

On a Clear Day isn't breaking any new ground here; it's filling in a spot on a list of smallish movies about ordinary people -- a noble effort, in my book. And where it falls short as a movie is more than made up for by Mullan and Blethyn, who show us, both as characters and actors, how to make the most of what you've got.

by Jen Kopf
24 February 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.