Confession: in preparation for this preview, my wife instructed me to read David Nicholls’ runaway best seller One Day, on which this film is based. I got no more than a couple of pages in before flinging the book aside in horror and exasperation. Not my kind of book. Its core constituency is thirty and forty-something women (a more elegant phrase my wife objects to is “women in their middle years”), an electorate with whom I have a great deal of familiarity but of which I have no real comprehension.
This puts me at two disavantages: one, not having read the book, I’m not able to judge the independent quality of the film against it (though the screenplay is written by the author); and two, it’s hardly likely to be my sort of film anyway.
And nor is it.
One Day is a sort of updated Bridget Jones’ Diary. Emma Morely (an accent-mangling Anne Hathaway) is a frumpy, working class, right-on, bespectacled poet who, in the dying moments of a university capping booze-up stumbles into Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess). He’s a handsome, posh, bounder. Other than passing out of tertiary education and into the big wide world concurrently they have nothing in common but still contrive to spend a cramped single evening on a cramped single bed: a brief relationship which against her better judgment – and his baser intentions – they do not consummate. They do, somehow, manage to plant seeds of a different sort, and a mystical bond of friendship forms, which we trace through the subsequent trajectories of their lives.
The device Nicholls employs to acheive this is revisiting them on the anniversary of their meeting, St. Swithin’s Day, in each year for the next twenty or so. It is a neat contrivance which presents its own narrative challenges, and Nicholls’ screenplay deals with them well, although as an aside, it does miss a fairly obvious beat: conventional wisdom has it that on “St Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, for forty days it will remain”, so there’s an element of metaphorical permanence attaching to this day – a bright red cue, you would think, for Nicholls to have it rain. Except that he doesn’t. And, when Dex recounts this rhyme, he caddishly fudges it and says “St Swithin’s day blah blah blah rain, blah blah blah remain”. What Nicholls thought he was doing with this particular piece of screenwriting I have no idea. But it points up his laziness surprisingly.
Nontheless the mystical permanence is established, and Emma and Dexter set off on 20 year-long character arcs. As convention requires, they are precise inversions of each other: Emma struggles nobly as the shift manager of a crappy Mexican restaurant and writes unpublished poetry in a grimy flat while Dex lands a job as a presenter of a vacuous but glamorous late night TV show and proceeds to embrace a lifetime of cocaine and floozies. Just as you wonder where it all went wrong, Dex falls to Earth, and Emma gets her publishing deal and finally begins to rise above it. Throughout all his peccadilloes and her drudgery, their improbable bond remains – never consummated, but we meander ever more closely to it. As we go, minor characters enrich the story; Patricia Clarkson is particularly good as Dexter’s dying mother, and Rafe Spall battles gamely with a poorly written love-interest for Hathaway.
For all that, I had a hard time buying the central relationship. And this film, and the novel, stands or falls on it: it needs the leading characters and their motivations to be credible. For the film to remain engaging, we need to really root for Emma and Dexter: they need, almost, to be heroic lovers overcoming tribulations of an almost Ancient Greek dimension. But Nicholls’ screenplay doesn’t deliver this, and nor do the actors compensate: Sturgess has some charisma but is no Colin Farrell. His character is for the most part a shallow bounder who does nothing to earn Emma’s initial emotional investment, much less her ongoing forbearance. Hathaway’s Emma is just a bit wet, even if she has traveled the length and breadth of the Isles to assemble her accent (could they really not find an English actress to play this role?), and was made up so frumpily that, on occasion she resembled Michael Sheen in drag.
Nonetheless Emma and Dexter finally, properly, intersect in a surprisingly clumsy scene in Paris. If you’re part of the core constituency and have been properly swept up, Dexter and Emma’s act of consummation may thrill you: I’m not; I found it postively icky.
There are some predictable plot twists (the big one was telegraphed a mile off) while other story beats (such as why Emma leaves her French Lover and finally returns to Dexter, having just rejected him) are not expounded at all. This is disconcerting.
As the film limps to its conclusion it remains difficult to see the appeal of this story, no matter how cleverly it may have been told. Dexter isn’t charismatic enough or likeable enough to justify Emma’s ongoing commitment. Emma isn’t interesting or tragic enough for us to feel truly sorry for her.
This isn’t a bad film: there are one or two nicely framed shots: Patricia Clarkson leaning into her son’s shoulder at an ivy-clad window, particularly, is a resonant image. But it isn’t an especially good film, either. For sure, winsome romances aren’t my thing, but I can still appreciate a fully character driven film, and this rarely gets above merely workmanlike. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough of a connection between the central characters for this film to carry the day.
One Day is out in cinemas 24th August 2011.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson
Runtime: 108 min