Breaking The Chains Of The Past

I decided to post a more in-depth analysis that I wrote, instead of my usual short reviews.  If you’re interested in watching the movie, you might not want to read this first as there are some spoilers.

On A Clear Day (2005), directed by Gaby Dellal, deals with a middle-aged Scottish ship-builder, Frank Redmond.  Frank, played by Peter Mullan, is haunted by an event from the past, so most of the movie focuses on whether Frank will be able to break away from the past.  Dellal’s thesis seems to be that one can obtain freedom from the past through an attempt to achieve something grand.

Dellal shows how an event in the past can isolate a man from his family and friends, as Frank Redmond has been isolated.  The movie begins with two boys playing on a beach, and the viewer understands that the scenes are from the past because they are partly in slow-motion and shown in desaturated color.  The realization that something bad happened in these past scenes is shown by seagulls flying slowly overhead and squawking ominously, and by the camera slipping underwater.  Furthermore, the scene is interrupted by metallic hammering, and then switches to full, even saturated, color and the present-day launching of a ship.  While a crowd watches the launch, Frank is in his office, packing his belongings.  It becomes evident that Frank works building ships, and that he has lost or quit his job.  He emerges from his office and stands against a large doorjamb, set apart from the crowd, which includes his wife Joan (played by Brenda Blethyn), his son Rob and Rob’s family.  Frank turns and walks into the black interior of the building, away from the crowd and into isolation.

This isolation theme continues through much of the movie.  The dialogue illustrates that Frank feels lost because he has no job.  He spends time with his former work buddies–Eddie (Frank’s oldest friend), Norman, and Danny (a younger man)–but there is tension even between them because some of them have remained at the work-place Frank left.

Frank is also isolated from his family.  It is soon evident that what caused these family problems, especially between Frank and his son Rob, was the drowning death of Stuart, Frank and Joan’s son and Rob’s brother.  This event from the past has affected Frank and his relationship with his surviving son.  He carries the weight of the past, which causes his isolation.

Frank is even somewhat isolated from his wife.  The main scene showing this occurs as Joan approaches their home after Frank’s last day at work.  The camera focuses through a window on Joan approaching the house, and even though the camera is inside with Frank, he is only visible as a reflection in the window that separates him from Joan.

The greatest tension and isolation is between Frank and Rob.  They are wary of each other and avoid each other on purpose at times.  This is illustrated by a scene where they meet on a street and stop to exchange a few words.  Frank asks Rob to have a cup of coffee with him, but Rob declines and they both walk away.  The scene then cuts to Rob sitting alone in a cafe, with a cup of coffee.  There is also a scene where Frank watches Rob and his family in the gym.  Frank had been there swimming, and they came to swim, but also presumably to see Frank.  However, Rob and his family never see Frank, who is undressing in a changing stall.  Instead of letting them know he is there, Frank watches them through his cracked-open stall door.  He eventually locks the door and sits down on the bench, in despair.  This illustrates his desire to communicate with Rob, but his inability to do so.  The past caused this inability.  Through dialogue, the viewer is told that Rob believes Frank blames him for Stuart’s death; in reality, Frank is burdened with guilt because he blames himself.  Because neither of them can talk about it, they remain isolated.

After Dellal sets up the element of the past causing isolation, the other main component emerges.  (However, both elements run simultaneously through most of the movie.)  This is the element of one man being able to overcome isolation by focusing his attention on accomplishing a goal.  Early on, Dellal sets up the goal Frank will focus on.  At a time when Frank needs something to give his life purpose, he goes on a boat-trip with his friends.  When he is out on the water, he stares at the sea while his mind flashes back to that day from the past.  This is when he first gets the idea that he will conquer the water that took Stuart–he will swim the English Channel.

An unlikely “confederacy” forms after Frank announces his intention of swimming the Channel.  Since Frank does not want his family to know what he is doing, this confederacy consists of Frank’s former work friends Eddie, Norman, and Danny, joined by Chan, who runs a food shop.  As the story progresses, the viewer sees that Frank’s unshaken determination to succeed inspires his friends, showing them that they can do the same in their own lives.

In spite of his stubborn determination, Frank nearly quits his swimming training after both Joan and Rob confront him because he lied about what he is doing.  While Joan’s anger is motivated by fear of what could happen to Frank, Rob takes it personally.  Rob is so angry that he comes to the pool where Frank is swimming and jumps in the water, fully clothed, to confront his father.  This scene unleashes the most visible emotion (up to this point), as both father and son scream at each other.  Frank is so upset by this encounter that he says he is quitting his training.  However, the next day, Frank’s friends find him sitting by the pool watching a boy swim.  Dellal illustrates Frank’s determination in this scene by showing it in another character, Aaron, the boy Frank is watching.  Although Aaron can barely walk or swim, he never stops trying.  Frank points to Aaron and says ” I’m not giving up.”

The greatest example of the result of Frank’s determination is the fact that he achieves his goal, although not without a struggle.  At one point, when he is only three miles from France, Frank almost gives up.  He is in pain from the extreme exertion, and he is fighting the tide.  He also flashes back to his inability to save Stuart from drowning.  He wants to give up, and screams in agony as his friends try to encourage him.  Eddie then steps up and yells at Frank–he tells Frank that Stuart is not out there in the water, and never was.  He finishes by telling Frank to “shut up” and finish the swim because he has no other choice.  Frank, still in the water, stares at Eddie for a moment and then calmly says, “Well, I’ll go on then.”

Frank makes it to the French shore, where Joan and Rob, and his family, are waiting for Frank, to surprise him.  Rob wades into the water to offer his hand to Frank, but throws himself out of reach when he realizes that if he touches Frank the swim will not be valid.  However, Frank stands and offers his hand to Rob, who is now sitting in the water.  Rob takes his hand and the two embrace.  This is the most powerful and moving scene in the movie–reconciliation takes place without a single spoken word.  Through the experience of achieving a goal, the chains of the past have been broken, and Frank and his family are together and happy.

Although this movie is short, it contains all the pertinent details for a complete story.  Dellal did an excellent job of tying the movie together–she does this by having the movie begin and end in nearly the same way.  The movie begins with two boys playing on the beach, and it ends the same way.  However, the difference is that the viewer knows something is wrong in the beginning, but at the end everything has come right.  Also, Dellal shows that Frank’s achievement frees him from his guilt about Stuart’s death, and allows him to be reconciled to Rob.  Perhaps the most powerful way that Dellal unites the movie is by showing Frank’s isolation at the beginning and his breaking of it at the end.  She shows this by having Frank enter isolation in a dark building, away from people, and then shows him breaking that isolation and emerging from the dark sea into the sunlight where his family is waiting for him.  All in all, On A Clear Day is a pleasant and genuine movie about a man who endeavors to free himself from his past by reaching for a high goal.  And he succeeds.