On A Clear Day

April, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Vincente Minnelli

Starring:Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand, Bob Newhart, Jack Nicholson, Roy Kinnear, and Irene Handl

Working class heroes have been a staple of films from the United Kingdom ever since the days when playwright John Osborne electrified London audiences with Look Back in Anger nearly 50 years ago. Credibility is the single most important asset an actor can bring to such a character and Peter Mullen has that virtue in spades, as his role in Ken Loach's award-winning My Name is Joe so amply demonstrated. This Scottish thespian, (who took time off from his acting career in 2003 to write and direct The Magdalene Sisters, his riveting examination of Irish nuns and their treatment of the "fallen angels" left in their care during the early years of the 20th century) goes back in front of the camera here as Frank Redmond in this whimsical tale of a recently unemployed worker in a Scottish shipbuilding company who decides to swim the English Channel. An actor with less evident charm and appeal would have been a disaster in this piece of well-intentioned fantasy; Mullen manages to make this film an appealing tale of personal redemption.

He doesn't do it alone however; director Gaby Dellal works from a knowingly sly script by first-timer screenwriter Alex Rose which has contains both the U.K.'s trademark capacity for wry self-effacement as well as some acidic commentary on the price paid by blue collar workers when they find themselves suddenly declared redundant. (As Louis Uchitelle points out in his recent book "The Disposable American", the Regan/Thatcher-era support for downsizing may be as deleterious to corporations and the economies in which they operate as it is to their former employees.)  Brenda Blethyn, (the superbly dotty Mrs. Bennett in last year's Oscar-nominated Pride and Prejudice) plays Mullen's wife Joan with a breezy sweetness as ample as her bosom; she's anxious to pass the necessary tests and become a bus driver, as much to get of an empty nest as to augment what appears to be a permanent reduction in the Redmond's household income. A handful of superb character actors function as Frank's cheerfully inept support team, providing an update on The Keystone Cops as they deliver further insights into the current state of unemployment and underemployment in The British Isles. 

A decade ago, Brassed Off examined the effect of layoffs on a Northern English coal mining town with the same mixture of whimsy and upbeat optimism employed here, but without a subplot as unnecessary as that which burdens this movie with unnecessary sentimentalism. Frank and Joan lost their oldest son years ago in a swimming accident, leaving their surviving son, a Mr. Mom entirely comfortable with his lot in life, to bear the brunt of his father's supposedly bottled-up, guilt-ridden grief. While Frank trains, his motivations appear to grow out of a legitimate need to assert his ongoing value as a person of dignity and worth; when he steps into the waters of the Channel however, the screenplay suggests he does so to vanquish some deeply submerged personal demons. His attempted crossing would have been much more profound if Frank performed it simply on his own behalf.

Modest in style and execution, Clear Day relies on the talents of its cast and the gently-asked but disturbing implications of its principal storyline to sustain the audience's interest. Those attributes are ample reason to enjoy this piece of low-key entertainment, which manages to make its quiet points even while laboring under an annoyingly distracting sub-plot. 

The verdict? A neat piece of feel-good escapism that relies on the substantial skills of its two leading characters to ultimately stay afloat.    

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