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Buoyant cast keeps 'On a Clear Day' afloat

''On a Clear Day" is about a plucky little fellow with a dream, and if you've seen ''The Full Monty," ''Billy Elliot," ''Saving Grace," ''Brassed Off," ''Waking Ned Devine," or ''Calendar Girls," you may be wondering if the British film industry has officially begun to make these movies in its sleep. Or maybe there's a factory up in the Lake Country that cranks them out like bangers and mash for export to US art houses, where they can displace tougher, worthier fare. Pleasantly inspirational on its own terms, ''Clear" is no one's idea of fresh goods.

Neither is Frank Redmond (Peter Mullan), a lifelong Glasgow shipyard foreman who's laid off in the film's opening scenes and slips into idleness like a wounded bull. His wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), is too busy trying to get her bus driver's license to pay close attention, and Frank is already estranged from his grown son Rob (Jamie Sives), a stay-at-home dad. All Frank can do is go down to the local pool and swim endlessly back and forth, like that polar bear at the Central Park Zoo.

The rules of the genre demand that Frank strive for a goal that's simultaneously foolhardy and noble, and so this 40-something duffer decides to swim the English Channel. The rules also insist he be surrounded by a crew of eccentric chums, so here come cranky Eddie (Sean McGinley), shy Norman (Ron Cook), and doofus kid Danny (Billy Boyd), the latter a nice comic change of pace for the onetime Pippin of ''The Lord of the Rings." Frank also needs a coach and finds one in Chan (Benedict Wong), the racially abused proprietor of the local fish-and-chips shop.

As with ''The Full Monty," the overriding issue is self-esteem: whether men who can barely talk to their wives and children can articulate a need for self-respect when the modern workplace lets them down. Frank has even more pressing emotional issues, since he's still wracked with guilt over the son who drowned as a child. Swimming to France won't bring the boy back, but that doesn't stop the film from laboriously making the connection.

Does any of this work? Sure, but only through the graces of a cast that knows better than to play to our hearts. Mullan, a tough, gifted actor (''Young Adam") and promising director (''The Magdalene Sisters"), keeps Frank's gaze in the truculent middle distance even when his eye's on the prize; the star shakes off sentimentality like a dog leaving water. His mates are fun -- Boyd's attempt to steer a powerboat is a slapstick highlight -- and Blethyn chirps sympathetically in a thankless part; it's a treat, too, to find the spookily graceful actress Jodhi May (''The Last of the Mohicans") in a small role as Rob's wife.

You get a glimpse of what ''On a Clear Day" could have been in a small, throwaway bit between Frank and his young grandson (Andrew MacLennan) on a stairwell, as the older man slowly comes alive to the joys of enjoying one's loved ones while they're still around. It's the one scene where screenwriter Alex Rose and director Gaby Dellal show a light touch, and it makes you realize that, with a little effort, they could have dispensed with all the swimming malarkey and given us Frank's life straight up.

There are channels to be crossed, though, and audience heartstrings to be greased. ''On a Clear Day" is soap straight off the production line and it floats only because they've got the ingredients down.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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