“One Day” by David Nicholls is a well written book and tells a story that I thought was well worth telling. Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew meet on the day of their graduation from college and strike up an unlikely friendship that lasts for decades. The book follows their lives over the course of 20 years, with each chapter scrutinizing the one day that they first met each other. This is not a platonic friendship by any means. There is an abundance of longing, lust and unrequited love flitting about the pages to make for the perfect yet realistic love story. As perfect as a realistic story can be at least, and for that matter as realistic as a perfect love story can be.
A film adaptation had been in development as early as the book’s publication, and Nicholls was set to write the screenplay himself. Lone Scherfig, who directed Carey Mulligan in the film “An Education,” was hired to direct and Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway were cast in the roles of Dexter and Emma, respectively.
Having watched the film now and allowing myself a considerable amount of time to mull over it, I still cannot get over my initial disappointment over how lazily distilled and ineffectively directed I found this adaptation to be. Perhaps the only silver lining to this dismal cloud of frustrating storytelling was the performances. Sturgess and Hathaway make the most of what they are given to work with, and both succeed in capturing the essence of their literary counterparts. Sturgess is an absolute star, storming into each scene with the kind of charisma only British actors seem to be equipped with. Be it while cockily telling Hathway’s Emma, he’ll walk her home the first time they meet, or when trying to maintain a straight conversation with his dying mother while drunk and possibly drugged, Sturgess personifies a Dexter that is so utterly unlikeable in the beginning that you cannot help but love him for the person he evolves into towards the end.
Hathaway is adept in her role but less impressive than Sturgess. In the book, Emma possesses infinite potential for success in many fields but always falls short of realizing what it is that she wants. What she wants and cannot have is, of course, her best friend Dex. This combined with her obvious intelligence and her slightly self-destructive tendencies make her a wonderfully complex character. In the film, however, Emma’s intelligence is not made apparent through the books she keeps referencing to Dexter or the long and lyrical letters she writes to him while he is out discovering himself in India. Instead, all that good stuff is traded for a pair of what I like to call “Harry Potter” glasses to let the audience know she is the “intellectual” type set against Dexter’s handsome and cocky type.
Hathaway can hardly be blamed for all that because the real fault here lies in Nicholls’ misguided screenwriting. And it gives me particular displeasure going forward, but the truth is Nicholls failed at adapting his own book. Scherfig did not do much to help the matter. The tone of the film is distractingly uneven. It switches back and forth between Dexter’s exploits as an inclining and then quickly declining TV presenter, and Emma’s woes and sorrows over not knowing what it is she should be doing instead of waitressing at a Mexican restaurant. While on the topic of tone, there is a completely unnecessary nude scene in the film that destroys the coy balance that had been previously established between Dexter’s nonchalant promiscuity and Emma’s prudence.
Dexter’s yin yang ankle tattoo is a clear nod to the differences between the two leads, but I wish so badly that their differences did not begin with Emma’s “Harry Potter” glasses and end with Dexter’s ankle tattoo. Scherfig and Nicholls failed to capitalize on how their differences made them tick.
There are some things that work in “One Day”. The cinematography is stunning and all the performances are excellent. Patricia Clarkson, in particular, stands out in the supporting cast as Dexter’s colorful English mother. We see her at her highest and her lowest, and it once again reminds us of how Clarkson can never do any wrong.
As far as romantic comedies and dramas go, “One Day” is pretty good. There are some scenes that are directly extracted from the book, and they are the scenes that work best. The narration stretched over two decades is somewhat refreshing. The age-old “opposites attract” formula does not get overly tiresome here, and it is for these reasons that “One Day” is not a bad film. People who have not read the book may even immensely enjoy it, but considering how good the book was, the film should have been much better.