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One Day is a smart, literate romantic drama

By on 23 August 2011 in Films

One Day is a smart, literate romantic drama
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This review contains spoilers. [I'd say! - Ed.]

As I blogged in my glowing review of David Nicholls’ superb novel One Day when it was published, it’s a book that speaks to virtually everyone who’s ever grown up, watched their dreams not quite be fulfilled, fallen in love with someone unsuitable and had tragic things happen to people dear to them. It’s sold an enormous number of copies – that orange and white design is pretty ubiquitous on public transport – and people feel protective about it and its two protagonists, suave but shallow little-boy-lost Dexter Mayhew and insecure, shy but smart Emma Morley. A film adaptation was inevitable, but the early signs looked promising; screenplay by Nicholls himself, direction by An Education’s Lone Scherfig.

The ‘rot’, such as it was, set in with the casting announcements. Jim Sturgess, hitherto best known for either singing or posing in such not-quite-successes as Across The Universe and 21, as Dexter met with a few shrugs and ‘I guess it could work…’ but the casting of the uber-glamorous Anne Hathaway as Emma met with aghast cries from people horrified at the idea that ‘an American’ would play such a quintessentially English role. However, Renee Zellweger’s excellent performance in Bridget Jones was mentioned, and so the naysayers were quietened. Then, eventually, the trailers appeared, making the film look like the sort of bog standard sub-Richard Curtis rom com that the book absolutely wasn’t. By the time I heard that the soundtrack featured the likes of Ronan Keating’s Life Is A Rollercoaster and Robbie Williams’ Angels, I was all but ready to throw in the towel.

Thankfully, the film of One Day proves to be a smart, literate romantic drama that’s true to both the spirit and, when necessary, the letter of the book. Adapting 20 years and 400-odd pages into 108 minutes has made for some excisions that fans might feel disappointed about (au revoir, Mr Godalming; farewell, the treasurable cross-purposes scene when Emma thinks she’s being interviewed for a publishing deal and the publisher is looking for an au pair) and has cut some characters right down to the bone. As Sylvie, Dexter’s first wife, Romola Garai has little to do other than stand around being blonde, and while Patricia Clarkson’s both glamorous and affecting as Mrs Mayhew, she’s only really in two scenes. Yet these are necessary changes, otherwise you’d end up with a four-hour epic.

As a film in its own right, it’s solid four-star stuff. The central dynamic between Dexter and Emma is handled every bit as well as it is in the book, with all the uncertain early lurches towards intimacy being replaced by angry fallings-out and eventual rapprochements. It gives a decent amount of attention and screen time to Rafe Spall’s excellent Ian, the world’s worst stand-up comedian, and actually improves on the source material in his final scene with Dexter, making it both more affecting and also truer to their respective characters. It’s less funny than the book, but there are a lot of witty, sharp one-liners that cut right to the core of the dynamic, offering welcome light relief from the inevitable and tragic climax.

Ah yes, that ending. It’s remarkably bold and innovative to have a story of this nature end with the random, horrible death of one of the protagonists, and in a sense it’s even more gut-wrenchingly disturbing in the film than on the page, partly because of the matter-of-fact way in which Scherfig presents it, and also because the final, near-poetic account of Emma’s dying thoughts is impossible to do on screen without being over-literal. It’s foreshadowed, of course, by the death of Dexter’s mother, which again feels more visceral when presented on film unsparingly. All this makes for an unusually downbeat and possibly even morbid romance, but one that’s refreshingly true to life and bracingly honest.

And so what of the two protagonists? Sturgess pretty much nails Dexter, capturing both the arrogance of the man-child who believes that his looks and charm can more or less get him what he wants, and then the slow process of maturity that creeps in when he realises that there are more important things than self-gratification. Despite the odd moment when he appears to be doing a Withnail impression, Sturgess is pretty much the character as I’d imagined it. The same, alas, cannot be said for Hathaway, an actress I’ve frequently found charming and beguiling before. It’s not that she isn’t here, but it’s more that she’s too styled and Hollywood to truly convince as the downtrodden, shy Emma Morley. (Check out the glossiness of her hair when she’s working in a Tex Mex restaurant.) You’d hesitate to call it a bad performance – it’s not – but one does wonder if her presence here owes something to box office demands to have a big American star in a leading role.

Nevertheless, this is high-quality entertainment, superbly well-written and well-judged, and thankfully it does the book justice. Rest assured, this isn’t a Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but a welcome antidote to the superhero films and scatological comedies that the summer season has been inundated with. It will probably be a big hit, and deserves to be.

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One Day is a smart, literate romantic drama

The film of One Day proves to be a smart, literate romantic drama that’s true to both the spirit and, when necessary, the letter of the book. This is high-quality entertainment, superbly well-written and well-judged, and thankfully it does the book justice.

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Alex Larman woke up at the tender age of 23 and, Martin Luther King-like, announced to the world that he had a dream. He was simultaneously going to write the 21st century's answer to Ulysses, direct the film that the bastard child of Scorsese, Kubrick and George Formby might have made and become a global roue on a hitherto unknown scale. Then reality kicked in, and the dream collapsed, in favour of a parlous and occasionally sketchy existence maintained writing about food, drink, film and all the other essential requirements of a modern boulevardier's life.

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  • Straight Up

    Thanks for the honest review Alex. I agree with your opinion on Anne as Emma.

    Any thoughts about the beginners?