Though grounded in social realism, the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach have always been graced by a strain of weary humor, drawn naturally from the lives of working-class blokes who laugh to keep from crying. The Full Monty's achievement, if it can be called that, was drawing out the comedy and camaraderie even further while putting a polish on the realism. Its stars are unemployed and desperate, the film suggests, but they sure are cute. Gaby Dellal's On A Clear Day, about a laid-off 55-year-old attempting to swim the English Channel, features another adorably quirky cast of supporting characters, but it stars Peter Mullan, a man without much use for shenanigans. Even in Loach films like My Name Is Joe and Riff-Raff, Mullan stands out for his intensity and seriousness; he allows funny characters into his orbit, but the weight of the world remains squarely on his shoulders. Whenever this mildly diverting inspirational comedy threatens to flutter off into the ether, Mullan's no-nonsense gravity brings it back down to earth.
Playing one of those working-class men whose job defines his identity, Mullan winds up adrift when he's laid off from the shipyard and cast into unemployment (or early retirement) at 55. He makes a few halfhearted efforts to look for other work, but he mostly swims laps at the local gym, where it soon becomes clear that he's far fitter than other men of his age and occupation. Still, his plan to swim the English Channel seems pretty ludicrous, even to his loyal mates (Billy Boyd, Sean McGinley, Ron Cook), who are all operating with at least one screw loose. With support from a fish-and-chips store manager (Benedict Wong), Mullan goes into training, while keeping his plans secret from his wife Brenda Blethyn and his estranged son Jamie Sives.
Much of On A Clear Day volleys between quirky and sentimental. The quirkiness comes from Mullan's pals, like Lord Of The Rings' Boyd, in full hobbit mode as a pesky jackrabbit who looks up to Mullan like a father, or Cook, a man so timid that he won't go anywhere near the water. The sentimentality comes from Mullan's past, as he's tortured by the memory of his other son's drowning death, an incident rendered so obliquely in arty flashbacks that it's hard to be sure exactly what happened. And yet, what's with the salty discharge that this cloying little movie draws out in the end? Against all reason, this workingman's journey across the sea winds up seeming every bit as inspirational as the filmmakers intended, entirely because Mullan's grit validates every cornpone emotion. With a lesser actor, the movie would sink like a stone.