In “On a Clear Day,” Scottish actor Peter Mullan (“My Name Is Joe”) plays Frank Redmond, an out-of-work shipbuilder whose quest to swim the English Channel becomes a source of inspiration to everyone around him.
And I mean everyone. His wife, his son, his buddies from work, the guy at the fish-and-chips shop, maybe his urologist, though we don’t ever actually see that.
In the spirit of things, I’d like to announce that I’m inspired, too — inspired to stand up to a well-meaning British formula such as this and say, “I’m not really buying it.” Whew, what a breakthrough.
Mullan is his usual flinty, feisty self as Frank, made “redundant” at the shipyards after a lifetime of service and none too happy about it. It’s a crushing blow to Frank’s pride, to the point where he can’t even fill out a form in the employment office without suffering a panic attack.
(Screenwriter Alex Rose leaves open the possibility that he might be illiterate. Frank never volunteers any comment on the matter. He’s just too flinty!) Frank’s emotional spiral is observed with no small amount of anxiety by his friends and family, particularly wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn from “Secrets and Lies”) and estranged adult son Rob (Jamie Sivers), who has twin boys of his own. Rob is unusually, obsessively protective of his kids. Gradually, we come to understand that Rob and Frank’s strained relationship is rooted in some still-raw family tragedy. Involving water.
Is that why Frank — exceptionally fit for a man his age — is such an avid swimmer? Exploding out of his funk, Frank makes the 21-mile Channel swim his salvation and surrounds himself with a wily support group, including worshipful co-worker Danny (Billy Boyd from “The Lord of the Rings”), to achieve the feat.
Mullan — a shrewd, economical actor, like a younger James Caan — imparts a marvelously subtle, transformative piece of acting. “On a Clear Day” is about the joy of renewed purpose, and Frank’s replenished spirit hits squarely on the mark.
The rest of the characters, not so good. Frank’s heroism infects them one by one, in ways that seem slavishly trivial. (One character learns how to drive a bus. Another musters the courage to tell off the potato deliveryman. Powerful!) Moreover, director Gabby Dellal (“Football”) struggles with dramatic riptide — backward swells of nonactivity that pull us away. Only by virtue of Mullan’s sturdy stroke do we make it to shore.