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On a Clear Day

By Alexandra N. Atiya, Crimson Staff Writer

Directed by Gaby Dellal

Focus Features

3 stars

Combining Scottish paunch and a harmless “Billy Elliot”-esque storyline, “On a Clear Day” aims to get a few laughs as well as warm the heart.

Frank Redmond (Peter Mullan, “Trainspotting”), like many other leading men in feel-good films, is rebelling against the stagnation of middle age. Recently fired, totally unable to communicate with his family, and grappling with a painful past, Frank decides to screw what everyone else thinks and pursue an absurd personal goal: he wants to swim the English Channel.

By testing himself, Frank hopes to break out of his shell and learn how to communicate with those around him—specifically with his grown son Rob (Jamie Sives) and his wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn, “Pride & Prejudice”).

Rob has been raising twin sons while his wife works, and he feels that Frank disapproves of his lifestyle. Joan also feels her depressed husband has shut her out emotionally, and so she derives a secret plot of her own—learning how to drive a bus.

On top of that, swimming makes Frank face his own grief: throughout the film we find out that the sea is connected to Frank’s memories of his other son, who died as a child.

This set of relationships would be plenty for one 99-minute film to handle, but Dellal squeezes in even more drama. Crammed into the film are a number of bizarre subplots which follow their own smaller feel-good arcs, including stories about minorities and handicapped children in the town. Frank, who has recently been fired and fights against the corporate types who stole his livelihood, has a group of drinking buddies and shipyard friends who support him; they each pursue their own love interests and try to find dignity in the workplace.

All of these extraneous, clichéd elements quickly overpower the film’s central plot line, turning the players into caricatures and causing the film to unravel.

The first moments of the movie are beautiful—shots of the British waters are accompanied by Frank’s gruff voice, “This is a poem. I found it in the library, for my son,” and seem to promise an unusual tale of soul-searching. Yet the film almost immediately devolves into predictable, mediocre jokes and characterizations. It seems to want desperately to be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s trying so hard that it feels a bit disingenuous.

Similarly, the performances are a little hokey (made worse by the fact that Frank’s expression of steely determination looks like George W. Bush’s squinty face). At moments the actors manage to achieve true warmth and emotion—in particular, Sives shows credible sadness and apprehension in relation to his father, his sons, and his dead brother—but the performances are not consistent.

This is not to say that the film has no redeeming moments. It was shot on location in Glasgow, Devon and on the Isle of Man, and the setting is an important part of the film. Even when Frank is sitting in the locker room of the pool, the cinematography captures a sense of roughness in his surroundings.

That, combined with some of the smaller touches—the frumpiness of Joan, the clumsy way in which she climbs down off of the big red bus, the faces and gestures the men make when they tip their beers—make watching the movie into a little trip to Britain.

This strong sense of place in turn highlights an unexpectedly poetic contrast— the bleakness of the working-class Scottish life is offset by the strange power and beauty of the sea that surrounds the characters.

Nonetheless, the cheap laughs and mawkish subplots ultimately cause the film to collapse, as it loses the specificity that could have created a genuine and moving movie.

BOTTOM LINE: “On a Clear Day” ends up feeling routine, despite its attempts to be transcendent.

—Reviewer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at atiya@fas.harvard.edu.

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