I’ve seen this before. That wee beetle pushes that big ball of shite for what is the equivalent of six miles for him, then just as he gets to where he’s going, another beetle comes and steals it from under his nose.
— Eddie Fraser (Sean McGinley)
Asked in 1924 why he wanted to conquer Mount Everest, British climber George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” Mallory disappeared on his way to the summit, leaving Everest’s peak unchallenged and charged with expanded mythical import. But his concise non-explanation defines a certain kind of man: the square-jawed, all-conquering stoic. He wrestles Nature to a draw because it is there, and that is what men do. Call it the Hemingway School of Masculinity.
Frank Redmond (Peter Mullan) is exactly that kind of man’s man, tough and self-contained, with a chiseled face. He has the reserved, innate dignity of the idealized working class; he makes a living with his hands, building ships in a coastal town where the tenement buildings rise from the earth like gravestones. A provider and protector, he’s also distant, the father who’s watched from the shipyard as his son grew up to become a stranger.
At the beginning of On a Clear Day, all these masculine signifiers are stripped from him. Because Frank refuses to swear fealty to the shipyard’s new management, he is declared “redundant” and sent packing. Untethered from the work that defines him, Frank wanders through his life in a haze of bewilderment. He browses the library, shoots the breeze with former work buddies, swims in the neighborhood pool, all with the air of a man who knows himself to be obsolete.
Mullan’s performance in these early scenes is perfectly understated. With a few well-placed glances and rueful smiles, he suggests the dislocation of a man used to knowing his place in the world. He’s an older, grittier Cool Hand Luke, resigned to certain realities but not yet dead. And then, in an instant, he’s reborn: looking out over the waves of the English Channel, Frank’s face regains its steel. Frank decides he’s going to swim the Channel.
Not just because it’s there, though. Frank also needs to rid himself of the guilt he’s felt since his young son drowned, years ago. Expressionistic flashbacks show just how horrible it is to lose a son, but the technique is overused, making Frank less a “haunted father” than “brooding patriarch.” Certainly, his surviving son, Rob (Jamie Sives), sees him as the latter, at the same time resenting that he, a stay-at-home father, is not living up to his father’s ideal manhood.
Frank’s story is briefly complicated by his wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn). While she’s peripheral to his plot, she pursues her own. With Frank unable to provide a steady paycheck, she secretly enrolls in bus-driving classes. As determined as he is to keep her family solvent, she takes and retakes the driving test, failing and persisting. But as she and Frank don’t actually appear to be suffering financially, despite a token argument about his expenditures on his swimming project, there’s no reason to think Joan needs a job to support them. This is, after all, a movie about men being men, with men.
Frank’s quest shapes a kind of secret fraternity for the men around him. They revel in his determination to do what seems impossible to them. But where Cool Hand Luke, for instance, eventually exposes the illusion of the men’s vicarious empowerment, On a Clear Day endorses it. Frank’s compatriots are all made manlier by their association with his quest. Young Danny Campbell (Billy Boyle), who never had a father and “just wanted to be the man for once,” finds the courage to ask out a girl. Eddie (Sean McGinley), the co-worker who earlier advised Frank to swallow his pride to keep his job, tells off his boss and walks out of the shipyard. (It’s unclear what repercussions this will have for Eddie’s family; what’s important is that he’s grown a pair.) Most bizarrely, Chan (Benedict Wong), the Asian restaurant owner who throughout the movie suffers taunts from a racist deliveryman, finds the courage to stand up to him… by speaking English.
Still, we keep expecting the film to challenge the clichés it lays down. Swimming the English Channel won’t bring back a dead son, or reverse decades of emotional disengagement… will it? To its conclusion, the film holds out the possibility of complexity, the suggestion that maybe extreme physical exertion isn’t the panacea Frank believes it to be. For all the Rocky-esque montages, it’s hard to believe anyone’s truly changed by this rousing experience. It feels like the easy plot, followed because it was there.