The only thing wrong with “On a Clear Day” is that it’s too similar to too many other movies in which eccentric British people do odd things. In this case it’s an old man who wants to swim the English Channel, but it could also be laid-off workers who want to strip (“The Full Monty”), or struggling factory owners who make shoes for transvestites (“Kinky Boots”), or old ladies who pose naked for charity (“Calendar Girls”), or strange villagers who want to collect a dead man’s lottery winnings (“Waking Ned Devine”), or I could go on and on.
Apart from that, it’s a reasonably charming story, directed by Gaby Dellal and written by Alex Rose (it’s the first feature for both of them) with confidence, if not always with grace.
Our hero is Frank (Peter Mullan), recently laid off from the shipyard where he has worked for decades and now feeling defeated. He wanders around his English seaside town in a daze, swimming at the rec center for fun but otherwise suffering from panic attacks and general malaise. His wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), is secretly training to be a bus driver to make ends meet. Frank is too proud to let his wife be the breadwinner.
That is the source of the rift between Frank and his grown son Rob (Jamie Sives), who is a househusband for his twin sons while his wife works. Frank and Rob disagree over what a “man” should do. Frank is old-fashioned; Rob is modern.
What Frank decides a man should do is swim the English Channel, a distance of some 20 miles. Obsessed with the idea — with anything that will give him a purpose in life, really — he begins training with a motley assortment of his friends and a Chinese man who runs a fish-and-chips shop in town.
The movie isn’t shy about letting us know how swimming the Channel will be a way of conquering Frank’s inner demons, and it gives everyone else a demon to vanquish, too. Rob’s brother died when they were young; Frank’s friend Danny (Billy Boyd) wants to be taken seriously as a man; another friend, Norman (Ron Cook), is afraid of water; Mr. Chan (Benedict Wong) needs to stand up for himself; Joan must pass her bus-driver’s test; and so it goes. Dellal does not generally overplay any of this — indeed, I like the subtlety with which she addresses the death of Rob’s brother, not spelling everything out for us — but the sheer NUMBER of demons to be faced makes it hard not to feel like we’re being hit over the head with it.
Inspiring? Sure, a little bit. There is much warmth and reconciliation in the final act, indicative of the movie’s goodheartedness. You can’t go wrong with that, though if it’s fresh, new, innovative cinema you want, you should look elsewhere.
B- (1 hr., 38 min.; )