Dir: Gaby Dellal. UK2005. 99mins.
British cinema has alwaysloved its underdogs. Gaby Dellal's big-hearted debut feature is yet anotheryarn about a small-timer fighting back against a society that marginalises him.In this case, the protagonist is a 55-year-old newly unemployed Glaswegian whostrives to redeem his life by swimming the English Channel.
Confidently directed, thefilm is buoyed up by some redoubtable British character actors and by a superbcentral performance from Peter Mullan. The problem is that the film-makers areso set on telling a crowd-pleasing, life affirming yarn that they end upsimplifying and sugar-coating material that at first seems far more complex andtroubling than the final reel heroics suggest.
When On A Clear Dayscreened in Sundance earlier this year, it was billed by many as anotherBritish film in the vein of Peter Cattaneo's The Full Monty. FocusFeatures, who took North American rights during Sundance, will be hoping thatit can emulate the box-office heroics that Cattaneo's male strippers performedfor Fox Searchlight back in 1997.
The Full Monty grossed over $250m worldwide. Ever since, there hasbeen a quest to find another project combining social realism with upliftinghumour in an equally appealing fashion. On A Clear Day is unlikely toget anywhere near Full Monty figures, but nor will it sink. This is avery likable comedy-drama that, in spite of its glib finale, makes some tellingpoints about generational conflict and family life in post-industrial Britishsociety. After festival play at Locarno and Edinburgh, it is released by Iconin the UK on Sept 2.
Early on, Frank is maderedundant from his job in the Glasgow shipyards after more than three decadesof service. Cut loose by callous bosses, he is cast utterly adrift. A man'sman, with old-fashioned notions about masculinity, he can't cope with the ideahe is no longer the bread-winner and falls prey to panic attacks. In one of themost poignant scenes, we see him nervously enter the job centre only to spot hisdaughter-in-law (Jodhi May), who works there. Ashamed, he beats a hastyretreat.
Mullan conveys beautifullyFrank's mix of anger, bewilderment and vulnerability. To exacerbate hisproblems, his relationship with his son Rob (Jamie Sives) has deterioratedalmost to breaking point. We know that there was a family tragedy long ago inwhich Rob's brother was drowned. Father and son have very different notionsabout work and parenthood.
The early Glasgow-set scenesare often reminiscent of Ken Loach films. In particular, there are echoes of MyName Is Joe in which Mullan gave an equally powerful performance as arecovering alcoholic. Dellal shares Loach's knack for capturing the humour andcamaraderie of the workers as well as their bitterness as their old way of lifedisintegrates around them.
Inspired by watching workerants struggle with huge loads and a disabled boy fighting to swim a length,Frank resolves to carry through his dream of swimming the Channel. His matesall contribute as his support crew. They too find purpose and self-respect inwhat starts as a very Quixotic venture.
As in Ealing films, there isa sense of a community coming together to defy the big, bad outside world.Dellal throws in some slapstick (speed boats roaring out of control) and plentyof dry, observational humour. Ron Cook, Sean McGinley, Billy Boyd and BenedictWong excel as Frank's accomplices in a plan which (at least initially) is keptsecret.
For all the humour andinventiveness with which Frank's mission is initially hatched, there issomething wearily predictable about the way that Alex Rose's screenplay finallypulls the strands of the story together. At times, too, for instance in thesub-plot about Frank's wife (Brenda Blethyn) trying to become a bus driver, thefilm drifts toward whimsy. Stephen Warbeck's relentlessly cheery music beginsto grate as what has begun as a spiky and complex character study turns into awish-fulfilment fantasy.
It doesn't help that along-distance solo swim is hard to make dramatic on screen. The flashbackscan't help but appear contrived and the final scenes sink into the realms ofsoggy melodrama.
The film-makers are sodetermined to end on an upbeat note that they risk undermining the qualitiesthat made the film distinctive in the first place. Nonetheless, even if On AClear Day is dragged down by its mawkish finale, Mullan's performance andthe energy of the direction always just about keep matters afloat.
Take Film Partnerships
Isle of Man Film
Glasgow Film Finance
Royal Bank of Scotland
Icon Entertainment International