REVIEW: “One Day” (***)

Posted by · 6:41 pm · August 19th, 2011

“I love you, Dexter, I just don’t like you anymore,” a radiantly moist-eyed Anne Hathaway tells a radiantly plastered Jim Sturgess at a crucial emotional juncture in “One Day,” Lone Scherfig’s attractive, involving and curiously unmoving attempt to replicate the cosy, literate-but-not-too-literary British comforts of her 2009 “An Education.”

Cribbed by screenwriter David Nicholls from his own mega-selling novel — the kind of fast-digesting doorstop that’s been a ubiquitous presence on London public transport for the past two years — the line is one of those reductively heart-on-sleeve sentiments that Richard Curtis sharpened to a blunt point in his 1990s heyday; when Hathaway drops it, you can hear the film straining for its own place in the pop culture quote bank, somewhere between “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed” and “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” in the swoon-cringe stakes.

If the film surrounding that moment seems unlikely to carry it to such relative heights, that’s because it’s at once less appealing and more adventurous than the bulk of the calculated Working Title charmers on which it is modelled. For starters, it’s one of the more neurotically male-minded films ever to be marketed as a lavender-scented chick flick.

The novel’s structural gimmick of visiting the central couple only one day a year — in case the phenomenon hasn’t hit you, the film charts their slow, endlessly obstructed progress from friendship to romance over the course of 20 years, like a defanged “When Harry Met Sally…” with a more organic spin on the structure of “Same Time, Next Year” — favors a reasonably democratic perspective on the page, but in transferring his work to the screen, Nicholls appears to have sided with his own gender.

Dexter Mayhew, the handsome, spoiled, lavishly flawed hero of the piece, is as hard to like as that opening quote suggests — blessed with every advantage but a clear sense of self, his world view dim and punishingly narrow, he nonetheless invites empathy with his involuntary need to be loved. (A particular generation of British readers seems to disagree, mind: a recent report showed “Dexter” shot up last year’s list of the most commonly registered baby names in the UK.)

By contrast, his persistent foil and supposed soul mate, Emma Morley, is a brighter-yet-vaguer creation: sparky, gifted and generous of spirit, her only recognisable failing is her reluctance to grant herself happiness at the expense of others. In theory, the pair’s virtues and absences should make their destinies as neatly and fatefully interlocked as the yin-yang tattoo etched into Dexter’s ankle. In practice, the film’s Emma is seen and shaped so much through Dexter’s eyes — even, it seems, when he isn’t actually present — that it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing a mirror image or a mirage; we like her more than we do him, not least because he does too, but we don’t know her awfully well.

The problem may partly be a medium-related one: watching “One Day,” it’s hard not to feel that the chronological conceit is more effective in prose, where the writer is at greater liberty to shade in the events of a single, frequently unremarkable, day with detailed emotional subtext and associative thought. On film, the days, years and eventually decades shuffle by in such quick succession, with Scherfig offering little in the way of visual or rhythmic distinction, that the development and maintenance of one character’s viewpoint becomes a challenge, much less two. (The slightly hurried storytelling, however, is no excuse for occasional blind anachronisms that have no place in such an era-dependent narrative: how on earth did no script editor pick up on the film’s careless notion that “Jurassic Park” defined the summer of 1994?)

Even allowing for this adaptation-hinged challenge, however, it’s hard not to sense that the performances — or more fairly, the casting — have contributed to the asymmetry. As Dexter, Jim Sturgess is quite wonderful: a once hazily defined dreamboat who finally arrives here as a leading man of presence and purpose (I’ll resist the glib life-art parallel), he’s modest enough to mark out the many holes in his character’s head and heart, but charismatic enough to show how he skates by with them regardless.

Anne Hathaway’s Emma, unfortunately, makes rather less sense: physically overqualified for the role of a plain Yorkshire girl timidly ascending the class ladder, her alabaster beauty hulking indiscreetly behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, she’s too effortlessly engaging a performer not to sell us on Emma’s charms, but it’s debatable whether she’s identified those charms entirely correctly.

Perhaps too much has been made of her wobbly, over-elocuted accent (as a friend and fellow critic pointed out, she’s surely the first working-class Northerner to pronounce “wrath” as a rhyming partner for “moth”), but together with Hathaway’s forthright head-girl demeanor, it remains a glaring character barrier: the narrative stakes much on Dexter and Emma coming from different worlds, but unless the former’s perspective extends to making over the latter in his image, the actors aren’t clarifying what separates them.

With these problems duly enumerated, however, “One Day” still entertains, and occasionally even fascinates, on levels both basic and more advanced: as an occasion to watch two thoroughly winning young actors bask in the glow of old-fashioned star treatment, however imprecisely applied; as a pleasingly unironic embrace of ripe stylistic romanticism, swept along by Rachel Portman’s over-keening score; and most interestingly, within this lush framework, as a pragmatic, post-millennial tweak of the Richard Curtis formula. (If I haven’t dwelt on the stylistic specifics of Scherfig’s direction, it’s because she hasn’t either.)

Emma’s quotable aphorism at the outset of this review hints at notions of emotional compromise Nicholls doesn’t push as provocatively as he might — his ending opts for an easy way out of more searching long-term questions — but “One Day” deserves credit for investing in a love story between two people who may not be destined for each other, or indeed for anybody.

[Photos: Focus Features]

→ 26 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

26 responses so far

  • 1 8-19-2011 at 6:56 pm

    Liz said...

    Good grief, that “Is it still raining?” line is the worst. Well, maybe it’s more the reading than the line itself. But still, not good.

    I really liked this book. I know that many readers found Emma and especially Dexter far too unlikeable, but I admit that I found them rather compelling in their repeated mistakes and bad life choices. Not sure what that says about me, but it worked for me.

    I can’t imagine how the structure is going to translate on screen, but I’m still looking forward. Jim Sturgess always struck me as particularly appropriate casting, but then I’ve always liked him.

  • 2 8-19-2011 at 7:31 pm

    Juan said...

    Go see “Fright Night” instead which was very fun and entertaining.

  • 3 8-19-2011 at 7:52 pm

    Jim T said...

    Loved the review!

    I swear it’s not because of Scherfig but I feel like Mulligan would be ideal casting in this movie. But maybe it would also be a waste.

    To be honest, I’m not really interested in seeing it. Maybe some day…

    PS: “You had me at hello” is awesome, in case someone brings it up :p

  • 4 8-19-2011 at 8:04 pm

    Mike said...

    Her accent was real bad.

  • 5 8-19-2011 at 10:24 pm

    daveylow said...

    I really liked the book up until the end and it’s a shame this wan’ts given a better adaptation by the novelist. Perhaps this was a case when another writer should have done a rewrite. And the director would have been smarter to have cast a British actress as Emma.

    It’s a shame because maybe this could have been as wonderful as Two for the Road if it had been done right.

    I do find Sturgess appealing, though, so I will see it in the theater.

    The book is number 3 on the NY Times paperback best seller list so maybe more people will go see this than anyone expects. It will probably do well in the UK and since the budget was only $20 million I assume this film will recoup its costs.

    But whoever handled the marketing for this film in the US should be fired. This was not a a hard film to sell.

  • 6 8-19-2011 at 10:49 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    I saw it today and I have to disagree with the 3 star rating, Guy. I definitely think this film botched what could have been a good and somewhat innovative approach to the doomed tearjerker genre. You are absolutely correct in saying Anne Hathaway’s Emma “makes rather less sense”. Horrible casting decision, from her terrible accent to the lackluster chemistry between the two leads (which could really be blamed on either or both but she always seems so. reserved.). I was never sold on Emma because I felt like Hathaway was constantly reminding the audience that she is Anne Hathaway playing Emma and not fully immersed in the role. Sturgess didn’t impress me either (I found him quite charming in ‘Across the Universe’) but it was too showy of a performance. But he wasn’t the worst part…

    What is with the 20 year time span and the only noticeable change seems to be their haircuts?!!!

    Scherfig had me captivated with ‘An Education’ and I plan on checking out ‘Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself’ due to several recommendations but good god woman, why do this to yourself?! I don’t get it. I hated the film (ok, so I may have been a little hungover so that’s partly to blame). I have no desire to read the book now. And I may or may not irrationally hate Anne Hathaway even more than I did before.

  • 7 8-20-2011 at 12:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Liz: I’ve always thought it’s the delivery — the line’s clearly supposed to be dryly ironic, but MacDowell doesn’t really sell that, does she?

    Jim T: I’ve been saying exactly the same thing about Mulligan — she has the slightly awkward, tetchy bearing the character requires, as well as the quality of looking alternately ordinary and radiant from shot to shot. (She’d have to work as hard as any American actress to maintain the Yorkshire accent though — it has a very distinct character!) Also, a brief supporting performance by Jodie Whittaker in the film functions as a convincing audition for Emma.

  • 8 8-20-2011 at 2:50 am

    Steve G said...

    David Nicholls also adapted his novel ‘Starter For 10’ for the screen. The movie starred James McAvoy, and when I read ‘One Day’, it felt like Dexter had been written for McAvoy too.

    The book ‘One Day’ was a compulsive read. It’s lightweight, but by the end I was very moved and convinced it had more heft than I’d initially given it credit. Disappointing that the reviews for the film are fairly tepid, so it was nice to see a reasonable score from Guy.

    As for Lone Scherfig, maybe ‘An Education’ was a fluke? I haven’t seen ‘Italian for Beginners’ but remember hating ‘Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself’ when I saw it years ago.

  • 9 8-20-2011 at 5:07 am

    daveylow said...

    I liked Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, an oddball film with very good performances. But it’s premise was not exactly crowd pleasing. You really had to have a macabre sense of humor to enjoy it. I saw her Danish film Just Like Home at the Toronto Film Festival, which also had good acting but a meandering script.

    I thought the strength of An Education was in its acting and writing. It also had a light directorial touch which worked for the material. If Lone cast much of the film she did a great job. I don’t know if she was rushed to get One Day into production or if she was pressured to hire Anne Hathaway but I’m still surprised to she didn’t hire one of the many talented young British actresses out there.

    I have a fondness for Starter for 10 which was also well-cast in each role but I would think that One Day would be a more demanding film for the actors giving the range of emotions. I still want to see the film, which may catch on given the popularity of the book which started last summer in the US.

  • 10 8-20-2011 at 5:46 am

    JJ1 said...

    I don’t mean to go off-topic, but since a few have mentioned it. I loved ‘Starter for 10’. I think it’s such an underseen gem.

    Guy, what is your opinion of that film (from what, about 5 yrs., ago now, maybe 6)?

    I hope to see ‘One Day’ during the week. And I’m glad that Sturgess has gotten good ink.

  • 11 8-20-2011 at 6:32 am

    m1 said...

    I absolutely loved An Education. It’s not as good the second time you watch it, but it’s absorbing, brilliantly acted, and wonderfully written.

    It’s a shame people are not saying the same about One Day, but I’ll check it out sometime.

  • 12 8-20-2011 at 7:22 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Happy to know that Sturgess fares well in this. He’s got a lot of promise, and I hope he continues to expand his resumé of challenging roles.

    And I wasn’t even aware that Jodie Whittaker was in this, but terrific! That reminds me that I need to watch Attack the Block….

  • 13 8-20-2011 at 9:48 am

    pascal le duff said...

    The Jurassic Park mistake bugged me as well. As is the use of ” You spin me round ” from Dead or Alive in ” Killing Bono ” in the early 80ies. As for the movie itself, It does not work really.

    It’s better than the previous LOVE STORY starring Anne Hathaway ( that dreadful thing with Jake Gyllenhaal ) but it has that ” been there done that feeling ” and I’d rather watch WHEN HARRY MET SALLY again. Here, it’s too self-conscious.

    And I agree about the concept of ” one day a year ” working much better in writing than on film.

  • 14 8-20-2011 at 12:54 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “An Education” was really not very good. Lone Scherfig doesn’t seem to be such a great director.

  • 15 8-20-2011 at 3:47 pm

    Danny King said...

    I too found Sturgess to be quite excellent in his role. And even though there are the apparent casting difficulties, I thought Hathaway settled in comfortably as the film went along. And even though the time periods were occasionally overlooked at certain junctures — such as the “Jurassic Park” blunder than you mentioned — I thought a good job was done in aging the two main characters physically. I really bought the gray-haired Sturgess, in particular.

    And just another observation: I thought one of the subtle highlights of the film was a late scene, set in front of the television, between Dexter and his father, who is played by Ken Stott. Though he’s only in a couple of scenes, I thought Stott left a lasting impression with his portrayal — maybe even more so than Patricia Clarkson, as Dexter’s mother. Or maybe it’s just another case of the “Nicholls [siding] with his own gender” thing.

  • 16 8-20-2011 at 4:21 pm

    daveylow said...

    Some reviews have complained about Hathaway’s accent. In a interview she does in Inteview magazine with Chelsea Handler (!), Hathaway said she changed her accent as time progressed in the film because she felt that Emma’s accent would changed as she moved around.

    As far as the gender thing, as I was reading the novel my sympathies went entirely with Emma because Dex seemed such a loser sometimes and totally undeserving of Emma.

  • 17 8-20-2011 at 8:38 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    I noticed some people have brought up the “gender thing” and while I haven’t read the novel and I don’t know how faithful the film is to its original source, I can say that it’s a pretty hopeless message. [Spoiler Alert] Beyond the one-sided relationship, the ending just adds insult to injury (quite literally, might I add) . As the commercials reveal, the film (IMO at least) revolves around the tag line- “she made you decent and in return you made her happy”. I don’t understand this. So, when Emma is killed in a freak accident, the relevance of her life is reduced to her turning a self-obsessed prick into a “decent” human being? Really guys?!??

  • 18 8-21-2011 at 2:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Daveylow: I get that about Hathaway’s accent — the thought she’s putting into Emma’s class-consciousness is obvious, and commendable. But at no point does she sound like someone even glancingly from Yorkshire — the accent first has to be right for it to be made wrong, if you know what I mean.

    JJ1: I like Starter For Ten just fine — no more or less than this one, really. Again, somewhat pedestrian filmmaking enlivened by appealing stars.

    Continuing off Dana’s comment, so SPOILER ALERT:

    Dana: I agree that the film’s depiction of the emotional exchange in the relationship is pat and not a little glib, but it’s equally reductive to accuse the film and novel of suggesting Emma’s life is complete — the most interesting and frustrating thing about the narrative is that their relationship is curtailed just as it seems to be on a cusp. I’m a little annoyed with Nicholls for taking the easy way out over what could be a more challenging resolution — perhaps that sometimes what is “meant to be” still isn’t? — but within the framework he’s chosen, I don’t think the moral is particularly egregious. Most relationship stories evaluate life in terms of the effect it has on others, after all.

    I sympathise with a lot of the gender-oriented critiques of the film, but I also think it’s a bit of a straw-man argument to attack it as a women’s film — a straw man, admittedly, that the film has itself constructed through mistargeted marketing. My take is that in Nicholls’ script, the film has become a Nick Hornby-style manchild crisis drama in which the central female character is viewed through the male protagonist’s limited gaze — not necessarily the right choice for the material, but not a worthless artistic decision in itself.

  • 19 8-21-2011 at 5:03 am

    Glenn said...

    My favourite scene was the one with Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night”. If the film earns out big brownie point it’s that it made me remember how much of a massive choon that was back in the day.

  • 20 8-21-2011 at 2:46 pm

    Daveylow said...

    I wonder if this film will be more popular as a rental. It is such a popular book especially among women readers. I am curious to see how the film will play in the UK.

  • 21 8-22-2011 at 4:43 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    I don’t think it will turn into ‘The Notebook’ which was a sleeper hit anyway, so nonexistent comparison, but it’s just not a love story that you want to talk about. That has nothing to do with the cringe-worthy ending, but everything to do with how unevenly the entire film was handled. I have heard high praises for the novel, so it’s source material has clearly struck a chord with readers but unfortunately wasn’t translated in the same way to the big screen.

  • 22 8-22-2011 at 6:26 pm

    daveylow said...

    I saw the film a few hours ago. What’s missing in the film are the several of the details and development of all the characters. And some of the humor of the novel. This really is not a romantic comedy but the film is being marketed that way. The film is much sadder than the novel, which didn’t bother me. I do think the film takes a while to get going. And there is nothing about Emma’s family at all. But the last 15 minutes of the film got to me. And there was more chemistry between Hathaway and Sturgess than some of the reviews indicated. I found Sturgess about 10x more appealing (and a better actor) than say Channing Tatum who was featured in a sudsy trailer of a new film with Rachel McAdams.

  • 23 8-25-2011 at 7:44 am

    Kotomi said...

    I love Jim Sturgess,so I’ve been following this film since it was announced. I’m glad you liked film and Jim’s performance.He is such a good actor.(I hope you see “Fifty Dead Men Walking” and “Heartless” some day. Jim is brilliant in these film) I’m really looking forward to seeing this film.

    By the way, I have a some question..Honestly I thought this film should have been handled by British people.British producer and British director.Because I think the book is written with very British sensibility.So..Guy, could you please tell me your thought about it? 

    Thank you.And sorry for my English.

  • 24 8-25-2011 at 8:34 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kotomi: No need to apologise for your English — it’s just fine. I understand your point about the level of British influence, but I don’t personally think it’s an issue — David Nicholls scripted, after all, and the film has a mix of British and American producers. Lone Scherfig may be Danish, but she’s had ample practice working in Britain. I think the film has other problems, but Hathaway’s performance notwithstanding, I don’t think cultural distance is the greatest of them.

  • 25 8-25-2011 at 10:10 am

    Kotomi said...

    Guy,thank you for the reply and for your kindness. Now I think I got right answer.Thanks again!

  • 26 9-03-2011 at 4:24 am

    jmp said...

    After seeing this film a couple of weeks ago, Anne Hathaway’s accent wasn’t the best , but she was the best part of the movie. Anne is naturally charismatic and appealing that she can sell almost anything. Her character was the only character I was concerned about in this whole movie. Even though Jim Sturgess’ character is the main focus of this movie ( he was given more opportunity to evolve and he had a better storyline) , he is still not a leading man. Jim is bland, and I never truly feel his performances. I would have loved Dominic Cooper or Andrew Garfield portraying Dexter. Also, I feel Garfield or Cooper would have had better chemistry with Hathaway.