“This summer, experience the lives of two people, for one day, each year, on each anniversary of the day they met.” That was the clunky, clause-heavy invitation from the One Day trailer a few months back.
Most of what doesn’t work about One Day, the new adaptation of David Nicholls’ bestseller, is embodied in that line. As a sentence, it’s awkward, anonymous, and over-reliant on a structural tool which complicates things unnecessarily. As a film, One Day is much the same.
Signs didn’t look good for One Day when the trailer arrived. The accents were ropey (Anne Hathaway plays Yorkshire; Jim Sturgess plays Rupert Everett-lite), the music was syrupy, and it seemed as if too much story was being squeezed into too small a space. Unfortunately for the film, the trailer’s promises turned out to be bang on the money.
You can be forgiven for not having heard of David Nicholls’ One Day only if you’ve not ventured into a high street bookshop in the last couple of years (in which case, you might also appreciate the heads-up that most of them have got rid of actual books in favour of Twilight board games and kitsch stationery). Thanks to a bunk-up from the Richard and Judy Book Club, Nicholls’ third novel charted well, and stuck around the top spot for a good while after release. In fact, it’s still pretty much there.
One Day is Lone Scherfig’s directorial follow-up to An Education, which was a lovely, well-acted piece of period storytelling. Like An Education, One Day is also a coming-of-age movie, of sorts. It’s about a friendship which begins one night as a drunken student romp and unexpectedly continues over the years.
Its male lead, cocky, posh Dexter (Sturgess) has a lot to learn about what it is to be a good man, instead of just a slightly famous, good-looking one. His sometime soul-mate Emma (Hathaway) flounders in her twenties, but, like most of Nicholls’ women, is infinitely more self-aware and capable than the men in her life.
We dip into the pair’s lives as they negotiate twenty years of dead-end jobs, deader-end relationships and all-too-fleeting moments of contentment. Spanning a period from the late-eighties to the late-noughties and moving from Edinburgh to London, the South of France, and Paris, the film’s locations and production design are grand, even if the end product is a wan version of the source material.
In the novel, the ambitious timespan allows you to get attached to the characters in a way that makes you feel as if Em and Dex’s numbers are stored on your SIM card. When they put the book down, a lot of readers admitted to feeling a genuine sense of loss. In the film, Emma and Dexter’s lives flash before our eyes making very little impression, and at the end, there’s not even the sense you’ve been told much of a story.
The cast isn’t the problem. Hathaway may not be the natural choice for sarcastic, dry, imperfect Emma, but her star name must have done the film some favours on the promotional circuit, and Sturgess is a good match for playboy Dexter.
No, the problem is the film’s structure, which worked a treat on the page but makes for a bloated, yet somehow empty picture. The narrative device by which we check in with Emma and Dexter on July the 15th each year is a noose around One Day’s neck.
While Rob Reiner made a similar arrangement work for When Harry Met Sally, his film could leap several years in one go and wasn’t obliged to tick off more than twenty instalments.
Nicholls (who also wrote the screenplay) and Scherfig make the sage decision of concentrating on a handful of key years, skipping some in a single shot (1997 was just a bit of swimming, for instance). The overall effect though, is like speeding through the plot, as if the filmmakers are knackered parents racing through a bedtime story to reach the end.
One thing that works in the film’s favour is its sense of humour, largely thanks to Nicholls’ screenplay. Rafe Spall and Romola Garai in the supporting cast are both responsible for a clutch of genuinely funny moments as Emma and Dexter’s respective other halves. Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent might have sounded as if she’d shared a voice coach with Russell Crowe in Robin Hood, but she too delivers some enjoyably deadpan comic lines.
One Day aims at being a rich human story about friendship, fate, and the redemptive power of love, but ends up closer to being one of those flipbooks you used to get as a kid. Racing along, scene by scene, the characters charge through their lives in shorthand, making decisions and mistakes that fail to make an impact.
My advice? Read the book and ditch the movie. But then, isn’t that usually the best course of action?