Movies rarely improve upon their source material and this film version of David Nicholls' bestseller is no exception. His novel is vibrant and immensely winning, charting the lives of university graduates Dexter and Emma on a single day over a 20-year period from 1988. They meet on their last day at uni and chastely spend the night together, henceforth coming regularly into contact with each other as their lives progress in different directions. She works in a London restaurant, he travels. She becomes a teacher while he acquires notoriety and stardom as the presenter of a tacky late night TV youth show. She moves in with her slovenly wannabe-comedian boyfriend while he succumbs to drink and drugs. She eventually becomes a popular children's novelist while he marries and has a child. But all the while they still hold a candle for each other. Nicholls made his characters readily identifiable and the mundane events they witness and experience are rendered with a freshness and vitality that is utterly beguiling.
Alas, he hasn't pulled off the same trick with his screenplay. The movie of One Day never breaks free from being a conventional romantic time filler. For most of the way it's dull and anemic. Hathaway makes a brave stab at portraying dowdy Emma, but too often appears morose and unhappy - the effervescent light within the character is absent. Her accent wavers to be sure - one is never convinced she's a girl of the North - but that said, some of the brickbats she's received for tackling the English idiom are unjustified. She's no Dick Van Dyke. Sturgess ticks all the right boxes for Dexter, registering the right amount of louche irresponsibility and arrogance, but somehow lacks charm.
Both performers in fact are never persuasive enough to make you fall in love with them. They're solid and competent, filling their roles with relaxed confidence, but one never feels invested in them as one does with the book. This is partly because the movie has obviously had to truncate and eliminate certain aspects, but nevertheless they fail to make one fully care enough about them.
Until the final act surprise that is. In the novel, the shock moment comes out of nowhere and completely throws you - it's what makes the book so memorable. Some people can remember exactly where they were and who they were with when reading that particular scene. Director Scherfig gives a portent of things to come at the start of the movie, but it's still effectively done nonetheless. Thereon the film finally gathers some emotional heft and concludes in a satisfyingly tearjerking fashion.Production design is top notch – the '80s and '90s fashions are spot on and there are some good songs chosen from the past 20 years that are judiciously used. But like all novels one feels a special kinship with – and who doesn't with One Day? – the movie is disappointing. Watchable certainly, with a sweet tone that is ultimately very moving, but it's never quite likeable or engaging enough overall. A fair attempt but it fails to achieve the heights one had been hoping for. The book is so well loved that perhaps it could never fulfill one's anticipation. Shame.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with director Scherfig; and five featurettes - Em and Dex, Through the Years; The Look of One Day: Making a 20 Year Love Story; Anny Hathaway: Bringing Emma to Life; The Look of One Day: Creating Emma with Anne; The Look of One Day: Dexter's Transformation