The setting is a shipyard in Glasgow, and the scene should be joyous. A massive cargo ship is embarking on its maiden voyage, and it seems as if the whole town has turned out for the event. But one of the ship’s builders avoids the party, because this beginning coincides with an ending. Frank (Peter Mullan) has just been laid off, so he’s trying to grasp the concept of staring his life over at the tender age of 55.
This marvelous tonal juxtaposition launches “On A Clear Day,” a rich drama that gradually evolves into a feel-good story. While most films that aim to raise audiences’ spirits merely elevate viewers’ blood-sugar levels, “On A Clear Day” earns its joyful payoff by presenting a host of memorable characters and a string of credible situations. This cinematic fable has its feet firmly planted in the real world.
When we meet him, Frank has been a haunted man for half his life, because one of his sons drowned a quarter-century ago. His relationship with his surviving son is distant, and he’s settled into a fragile accord with his wife in which neither trusts the other with their deepest secrets. He’s friendly with a motley crew of locals, but his greatest happiness comes from his two young grandchildren.
Losing his job unravels Frank’s sense of purpose and identity, forcing him to spend time with the demons he’s suppressed since his son’s death. He casts about for something to give his life meaning, and finds it in his hobby. Frank’s a swimmer, so he decides to push himself to his absolute limit by attempting the 20-mile swim across the English Channel.
The long-distance swim becomes a symbol of Frank’s need to conquer the tragedies and disappointments in his life, so he soon grows obsessed with preparing for the grand endeavor. His well-meaning but borderline incompetent friends assist however they can, leading to delightful comic sequences as well as moments of inspiring camaraderie.
And as Frank pursues his dream, his wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), discreetly chases one of her own.
Alex Rose’s screenplay is a marvel of steadily building emotion. The early scenes are tough and unforgiving, reflecting Frank’s black mood at the beginning of the story, and the tone lightens gradually as the tale progresses. Only in a few small instances does Rose stoop to easy gratification. The script digs very deep into Frank’s soul, and the supporting characters are etched with skill and compassion.
While Gaby Dellal’s direction is solid throughout and occasionally inspired, this is really Mullan’s show. With his wiry gray hair and weathered features, the star of “My Name Is Joe” and other gritty pictures slips into his character’s skin perfectly. There’s never a false or cheap moment in his performance, and he lets Frank’s wounded spirit shine through even when the character’s being belligerent. In Mullan’s hands, Frank becomes one of the most detailed and convincing movie characters since Paul Giammatti’s pinot-lovin’ shlub in “Sideways.”
And then there’s the swimming sequence. Loaded with persuasive specifics — the glow stick affixed to Frank’s swimsuit, the seaweed he must claw through — the climactic event of the movie unfolds with great passion. It’s a cliché to suggest that you’ll be rooting for Frank, but “On A Clear Day” is so wonderful that it nearly makes the concept of an underdog athlete seem new.