Two Lives, One Day

On the surface, One Day might seem like a typical romantic comedy. It does, after all, exhibit several hallmarks of the genre: an “opposites attract” pair of protagonists who have to overcome a series of obstacles – including poorly chosen romantic partners and rifts in their friendship from which recovery seems impossible – in order to find love with each other.

But the film version of David Nicholls’s novel (for which he also wrote the screenplay) offers more — and somehow less — than the standard rom-com pablum. It follows its protagonists over nearly two decades (on July 15 of each year, hence the title), forces them to face fairly serious problems, and provides no tidy, treacly ending. Emma (Anne Hathaway, with a passable British accent) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet at university in Scotland in the ’80s, she middle-class, devoted to progressive political causes, and a serious student, he wealthy and more dedicated to partying and sexual conquests than to politics or his studies.

Although their attraction to each other always lurks just beneath the surface, over the ensuing years they each move to London and manage to maintain a platonic friendship during their various struggles: Emma stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships as she fitfully pursues a career as a writer, playboy Dex more successful financially as a vacuous television personality but sinking into drug and alcohol abuse. Although these two are well into their thirties before they can be honest about their feelings for each other, that’s not the end of the story. Without spoiling it for anybody who hasn’t read the novel, let’s just say that Dex’s marriage to a woman other than Emma is not the biggest tragedy in One Day.

The film struggles under a few burdens. Although Sturgess is perfectly adorable, he is miscast as the self-confident alpha male Dex, playing the character instead as boyish and a little diffident. Then there is the script: perhaps in an effort to make the characters more likable, Nicholls’s screenplay files down the rough edges that give them complexity. Thus, Emma’s affair with her married boss is omitted in the film; of course she’s far too smart to be engaging in that sort of behavior, but that’s the whole point. Gone from the film also is Dex’s furious resentment at the former college friend who steals his wife — and along with it a chance to see the pain of failure behind his happy-go-lucky façade. The result is characters that are bland shells of their novelistic counterparts. And while the book featured Emma’s sharp wit and frequently had me helpless with laughter, the humor of the film is more understated — not a bad thing necessarily, but sometimes you want a belly laugh.

But the film’s greatest flaw has to do with the source material. It’s as if Nicholls chose to address the problem inherent to all depictions of long-term will-they-or-won’t-they friendships — the inevitable loss of narrative momentum once the relationship is consummated — by gut-punching the reader (and viewer) with something altogether unexpected. In the book, this felt a bit like laziness, as though the author had no idea what to do next with the characters or relationship he’d created, and so took the easy way out. However, Nicholls is a skilled enough writer that the reader sticks with him to see what he’s really up to, which is more than cheap gimmicks. In the film, this abrupt transition in the story is rougher and not as convincing. Because the characters and tone of the film have been kept more superficial, the viewer may treat the final message with some skepticism: “Seize the day all that bollocks,” in the memorable words of Ian, Emma’s rejected boyfriend. There’s more to it than that, but the viewer will have to dig deep to find it.

One Day. Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Romola Garai, and Rafe Spall star in a film directed by Lone Scherfig, written by David Nicholls based on his novel.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, some nudity, drug and alcohol use, profanity, brief violence, disturbing images of an accident, and mature plot elements including infidelity, illness, and divorce; running time: 107 minutes.

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