Fiction of all varieties is rife with symbolism of all types, and one of the most popular motifs is water. Some of that's due to its ever-changing nature, its personal and global effects (good and bad) on all of us, and maybe even those ties back to stepping or slithering out of some primordial sea.
That's particularly true in the latest feel good dramedy from across the pond, "On a Clear Day." In it, Peter Mullan stars as middle-aged Frank Redmond who's made a living off the sea -- working at a Glasgow shipyard -- and enjoys swimming in his down time. Yet, the water also means losses for him, both in terms of vocation and family.
Decades after being unable to save his 7-year-old son from drowning in the sea, he's now been laid off from building ships. Lost in a sea of confusion, he spends even more of his time swimming. That, along with a friend's comment that on a clear day one can see all of the way to France, gives him an idea, fuels the film's forward momentum and leads to both recovery and closure.
Thus, the water symbolism -- that starts and ends in the sea while involving the father & sons relationship -- goes full circle in that what the water took away, it gives back. Some critical viewers might find all of that too thick and obvious, which could also be the reaction to that healing rubbing off on others, as well as the overall "feel good" qualities the film proudly wears on its water-logged sleeves.
I can understand such objections, but beyond some clunky and contrived plotting, I found that the filmmakers -- director Gaby Dellal and screenwriter Alex Rose -- hit the right notes for the most part without going too far with the serious and lighter material, or the melodrama in between.
Then again, I'm somewhat of a softie for films dealing with familial death and/or reconnection. That is, as long as a film doesn't get too maudlin, something this film thankfully avoids. I'm also a sucker for this particular style of British dramedies that feature working class folks who manage to make their way through adversity and good times with charming pluck and the help of friends.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the film is grounded (in the good sense of the word) by Mullan's strong performance as the troubled but proud blue collar protagonist. Frank effortlessly lets us feel his pain and desire, and the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of that as well as the nice emotional touches scattered throughout the storyline.
The best are between him and his grandkids, including one cute and emotionally connective moment on a stairwell where one boy asks his "poppy" about his upcoming swim (listing the dangerous critters he wonders might be lurking in the water) and then deems it an okay endeavor.
As in most of these sorts of films, there's a collection of friends who provide the support and comic relief, and Billy Boyd, Ron Cook and Sean McGinley are up to the task. Brenda Blethyn plays the protagonist's wife who's trying to deal with their loss of income by taking driving tests to become a city bus driver. That subplot never quite takes off as well as intended, but there are some decent and true husband/wife moments between them.
Jamie Sives is present for the younger half of the father/son combination -- which is the crux of the story -- and the actors convincingly portray the sort of strained relationship that often forms between men and their sons, even if Sives' bit occasionally feels a bit too contrived. That also holds true for Benedict Wong playing a local restaurant owner who faces racism and then somewhat inexplicably becomes the protagonist's coach and motivator for his swim (seemingly just because Frank treats Chan with respect).
With much of the film taking place in or around various bodies of H20, the water symbolism is hard to miss. Yet, and despite a few clunky moments, I mostly fell for it hook, line and sinker. Perfect for those who enjoy British working class dramedies but perhaps a bit much for those who've grown tired of them, "On a Clear Day" unfolded swimmingly enough for me to earn a recommendation.