When David Nicholls’ bestseller One Day was unleashed on the world in 2009, it came with a rather unique premise– it traces the lives of a British couple-that-really-isn’t by checking in with them once a year, on July 15, for 20 years. It was a heartfelt, rich, and engrossing character study that touched almost everyone who picked it up.
Then it was announced that Nicholls would be adapting his own novel for the big screen, and that Lone Scherfig (An Education) would be directing it. And that it would star Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) as Dex, and Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs) as Emma. And even though many people’s reaction to Hathaway being cast was a headscratch and a “But she’s not British”, there were still high hopes that One Day would end our summer on a particularly romantic (and sniffly) note.
Adapting a lengthy book into a compelling two-hour movie isn’t impossible (see the recent The Help), but something happened on the way to the big screen for One Day. Without enough effort put in to properly develop either character, we’re left feeling short-shrifted and a little at a loss as to why the intelligent, capable, and beautiful Emma would keep holding on to her dream of being with slimeball Dex; I imagine even diehard fans of the book will be a little dismayed at the rather cursory glance we get of these people.
The events begin in the early morning hours of July 15, 1988, as Emma and Dex graduate from university. She’s liked him for a while. He’s hardly noticed her. After an aborted fumble in the sheets, they decide to remain friends, and so, year by year (through 2011), we’re witness to their story.
She’s an aspiring writer who takes a lengthy detour as a waitress as a taco dive in London. He becomes a tool of a TV host, presiding over a too-hip variety show. His mother (Patricia Clarkson) is battling cancer. Her life takes a detour of its own as she shacks up with a struggling comedian and eventually becomes a teacher.
Yes, a lot is happening in these people’s lives, but we never get the depth or perspective to care that much. In fact, at one point when Emma professes her love for Dex, the natural reaction is to stand up and shout, “But why?” The filmmakers went out of their way to pinpoint all of his less-than desirable traits (womanizing, alcohol, drugs) but for some reason decided to leave out most of the parts about why, exactly, Emma can’t get him out of her head (and heart).
Some of the yearly ‘chapters’ are glossed over in a matter of seconds, and others are omitted altogether, and the movie’s pace and the actors’ chemistry both suffer as a result.
Both Hathaway and Sturgess turn in sharp individual performances– just not so much as a couple. And her intermittent, fake accent becomes distracting enough to make you wonder why an equally-talented actress from… oh, say… England wasn’t hired for the role (*cough* Emily Blunt. *cough* Carey Mulligan).
Nicholls’ screenplay is be the real culprit, though. The witty moments from the book become just-this-side-of-silly in the movie, and the touching scenes are often given too little time to develop into something compelling. As a result, we’re left with little more than a skim-the-surface highlight (and lowlight) reel of these two peoples’ lives.