Screenplay Written by David Nicholls based upon his original novel
Directed by Lone Scherfig
* (one star)
How is it possible to make a film this terrible from such a wonderful book?
The film adaptation of Author David Nicholls’ internationally best selling novel, which traces the 20-year relationship and romance of best friends Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew was the epitome of a crushing disappointment. Unlike so many other films that just do not even attempt to give the creative heavy lifting an honest try, “One Day” certainly had more than enough talent in its corner, and I believe that all of the principals came prepared to work diligently. From the stars, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess to Director Lone Scherfig, who previously helmed the wonderful “An Education” (2009) and even Nicholls himself, who adapted his novel for the screenplay, I was more than anxious to see this film. I hoped that it would be a supreme visual representation of the novel that was often hilarious, filled with gorgeously witty dialogue and underneath the banter and painful sexual tension laid a deeply perceptive and at times, wrenching story that truly understood the push-pull nature of friendships, unrequited love and the disappointment that comes when one’s life does not turn out as brilliantly as one had high hopes for. Well, unfortunately the stars for this film project were seriously not in alignment as like some periods in the lives of the film’s primary characters, the end result was not nearly as shining as it should have been. “One Day” the film is a flat, dreary, sluggish, passionless affair whose superficial sheen completely undercuts the story’s unabashedly romantic, wistful and crushing core. What a shame as this could have been a film love story for the ages.
Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess star respectively as the frumpy, socially passionate, insecure Emma Morley and the wealthy cad Dexter Mayhew, who officially meet on July 15, 1988 upon their graduation from college. After spending one romantically awkward night together, the twosome find themselves early the next day at the moment where they will either carry onwards with their lives never seeing each other again or perhaps, there was a connection after all. This interpersonal curiosity begins Emma and Dexter’s emotionally turbulent journey, which the audience views as snapshot vignettes that occur on every July 15th over the course of 20 years.
We experience Emma’s stagnated post-college existence in a tiny London apartment that smells of “onions and despair” and her dead end career as a waitress at a horrible Mexican restaurant while Dexter ascends into television fame as the smarmy host of a late night music/evening life broadcast. From here, we chart their lives through creative and professional breakthroughs and downward spiraling emotional and drug-induced heartache. We see Emma and Dexter’s respective relationships, she with the geeky, aspiring standup comedian Ian (Rafe Spall) and he with streams of women including the vapid television hostess Suki Meadows (Georgia King). All the while, Emma and Dexter continue circling each other, growing closer, falling in and out of each other’s lives, and somehow always remaining connected even when their connection has seemed to have disintegrated permanently.
All of this is ripe material for an epic love story that is also intensely personal as the core of the story is designed for all of us to chart the trajectories and the inherent fragility of our own lives through the characters of Emma and Dexter. This is firmly achieved via a late story development, which I will not reveal here, that makes you re-evaluate everything that had occurred before and informs every moment afterwards. With the novel, every experience felt lived in, therefore making the book as a whole resonate fully with potential readers. We read the growing pains of Emma and Dexter while remembering, and continuing to live through, our own growing pains. Anyone who chooses to pick up a copy of the novel may come to realize that Emma and Dexter, while existing as vibrant literary characters, are also stand ins for all of us. Their experiences are our experiences. Their disappointments, joys, hopes and fears are our own.
With the film version, I was stunned to see how shallow the proceedings turned out to be. It had all of the notes but it could not play the music. Scherfig’s visual palate was surprisingly drab (completely betraying the opportunity to show off London as an essential character), her terribly slow pacing was punishing and most of all, “One Day” was emotionally empty. Everything just sat upon the screen dryly and without any sense of internal urgency. When this film needed to be at its most aching, I felt absolutely nothing.
The film seemed to have no understanding of what makes friendships work and what makes them so potentially devastating as well. It was unknowledgeable of the growing process, the restlessness of one’s 20s, the internal confusion and potential need for stability in one’s 30s. It didn’t understand the process of discovering one’s sense of self worth and the hurt that occurs when what you felt you needed the most is the very thing holding you back from your own evolution. It was unaware of what it means to love another person so fiercely that life itself is unable to make any sort of sense without the object of your affection. Was Scherfig afraid to delve so deeply into the material, which is just begging for a filmmaker to do just that? Whatever the reasoning, “One Day” suffers tremendously from being a film that has no guts!! There was nothing occurring beneath the surface value of watching two attractive leads for two hours and that was just shameful to me.
Another major issue happens to be those two aforementioned attractive leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are very well cast, especially Hathaway, who utilizes a British accent effectively and whose piercing beauty was dialed down just enough for Emma’s frumpier post-college years. While they have each nailed down their character’s traits well enough, neither of them plunged deeply. They resemble Emma and Dexter but they don’t embody them.
On the page, I fell completely in love with Emma Morley. This woman was a tremendously empathetic character filled with such refulgent brightness than when the story shifted away from her, you missed her presence. Emma was a person I think we would all be happy to know in real life as she was forthright, quick-witted, open-hearted (sometimes to a fault) and with an inner sadness that made her a character to root for and cheer on. Her happiness was as much ours as her disappointments. In the film version, that sense of empathy never occurred. I hated how Hathaway was seemingly on the verge of tears from one end of this film to the other. While that visual sadness does not conjure much internally, it also undercuts the fullness of Emma Morley’s’ character. Looking sad is not enough.
Now, dear readers, you know how much that I adore Anne Hathaway. Furthermore, we all know that Hathaway has the talent to dig deeply. If you have seen her blistering work in Jonathan Demme’s excellent “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), you know fully well that she’s got the stuff to deliver the goods. And yet with “One Day,” everything felt so flat. It’s not a bad performance by any means. Just a depressingly uninvolving one.
The same can be said for Sturgess, who seemed perfect for the role of Dexter Mayhew. He possesses the devious charm of a scoundrel and devilish good looks necessary for the part. But, he has a decidedly trickier role to play. Throughout the novel, I was terribly unsure if Dexter’s affection for Emma was true or whether he was just waiting to finally bed her and be done with her. Every time I wanted Emma to get herself as far away from Dexter as possible, Nicholls would inject more backstory, more psychological motivation, more situations that greatly informed this character and by the book’s final sections, the fullness of his love for Emma became powerfully clear. Again, in this film version, it seems as if Sturgess is acting by hairstyle as he also finds nothing below the surface to play. And I’m sorry, but just graying the hair at the edge of his temples is not enough to suggest the passage of time and the heartbreaking interior growth he has experienced.
Worst of all and crucially, Hathaway and Sturgess do not have any chemistry with each other whatsoever. So, that tidbit kind of sinks the proceedings more than a little bit, wouldn’t you think?
As the final credits began to scroll and Elvis Costello sang his heart out through the movie theater speaker system, I had to wonder and even possibly concede that perhaps my hugely negative reaction was simply due to the fact that the movie inside of my head did not match what I had seen upon the screen. Was I just expecting too much as I had loved the novel so profoundly? As I have always said, books are books and movies are movies and it is the filmmaker’s job to adapt the source material to best represent it through the visual medium ensuring the spirit of the original material remains intact. With that, I decided to inquire the opinion of a couple who happened to be exiting the theater just as I was. The couple informed me that they did not like the film either and felt disappointed that the film never seemed to truly capture what a 20-year friendship would be like. They also felt that the characters of Emma and Dexter lacked the necessary depth to care about either one of them. And no, neither of them had read the novel at all and even expressed that they were unaware that it has been a novel in the first place.
Take from that conversation what you will but from me, “One Day” is a resounding failure. It felt as if it were no more than a checklist of the book’s greatest hits and completely devoid of any nuance and pulsing soul to boot. Even Composer Rachel Portman’s score was irritating due to it syrupy tone and its inability to extend itself beyond what sounded to be one theme performed either quickly or slowly, depending upon what was happening on screen. Almost nothing worked in this film and what makes it so sad to me is that, “One Day” had the potential to be a great film. Not just a good one. A great one. But it was not to be…
As it stands, “One Day,” based upon one of my favorite novels in recent years, has become one of the worst films of this year.