Gaby Dellal worked as an actress and directed several short films before making the refreshing and inspirational drama On a Clear Day. Her direction of this film has been nominated for several awards and On a Clear Day won a Scottish BAFTA award for Best Film. Shot on location in Glasgow, the Isle of Man, and Dover, it tells the seemingly improbable story of blue-collar Frank Redmond (Peter Mullan) who finds himself, at age 55, made redundant from his job as a Glasgow shipbuilder. Suddenly without a job or a direction, he is catapulted into a mid-life crisis.
Frank is a troubled man, and the opening scene sets this out forthrightly. One of Frank’s young sons had died in a drowning accident at age seven. For three and a half decades Frank has held himself responsible. He has closed himself off from his family and friends, most significantly his surviving son, Rob (Jamie Sives), who is himself an unemployed house husband bringing up twin sons. Once Frank has crossed the threshold of the local unemployment office he begins having panic attacks, one so bad he ends up in the hospital.
Inspired by a smart-ass comment by his good buddy Danny (Billy Boyd), Frank soon strikes upon the hare-brained plan to swim the English Channel – it seems the blue-collar-manly heroic sort of thing that might give him back a sense of personal dignity and worth. It also happens to inspire his friends, and creates a rallying point for his family. Meanwhile, Frank’s wife Joan (Brenda Blethyn) has begun to respond to her husband’s secretiveness in kind; in a humorous parallel subplot, she is trying to pass her driving test to be licensed as a double-decker city bus driver.
A core strength of On a Clear Day, and perhaps an excessively winsome one, lies in how secondary to the real story the Channel swim actually is. Frank’s unexpected unemployment has thrown him so off balance that this man, who has held himself so carefully in check for so many years, is unable to stop the volcanic eruption of decades of pain and grief over the loss of his son. Much of the plot and character development focus on how Frank intuitively feels his way through the isolation and swims back to emotional life.
Much of the film is shot around water, whether along the sea coast, in the public indoor pool or the locker room, and the actors are typically soaking wet, climbing in or out of water in their swim trunks. Frank’s mate, young Danny looks up to Frank almost like to a father, who perhaps vaguely fills the void left by the son Frank never knew. The two get together regularly with their mates Norman (Ron Cook) and Eddie (Sean McGinley) to swim together at a local public pool. The un-self-consciousness of mostly middle-aged, blue-collar men palling around together in their swim trunks comes as a welcome relief, the scenes neither pandering sex appeal to the audience nor imposing Hollywood-defined decorous dress and setting. The settings of these men being natural with each other, as well as the dynamic of open secrets among the circle of friends and family, bear out the metaphors of being naked, being seen and coming to see oneself as one truly is.
At times, the sarcastic rejoinders and other moments of chance encounters ring a bit staged for the film. And only the densest viewer might fail to grasp the metaphorical meaning of Frank’s life-or-death struggle to cross to the other shore of the Channel. And yet, Dellal manages to show a world still lived on a human scale – just because Frank has, temporarily, lost sight of those he loves most does not mean they have lost sight of him. Dellal reveals a powerful, intelligent vision as both a director and as a woman who loves men.