There are so many problems associated with this film version of the David Nicholls novel, that to blame Anne Hathaway’s dodgy Yorkshire accent for its shortcomings is as unreasonable as claiming that the music the band was playing on the Titanic made it hit the iceberg.
Where to start with what went wrong? Well, perhaps I’d better do a quick plot recap for those who are coming to the film without having read the book – and you are the ones who are most likely to enjoy it. Dexter and Emma meet on July 15th 1988 as they graduate from Edinburgh University, when their intended one night stand is aborted by a combination of shyness and indifference. Dexter is from a privileged and wealthy background; Emma is from Yorkshire, and (though we never meet her family) was clearly born with a plastic spoon in her mouth. But over the next 20 plus years, their friendship endures, although all we see of it is an annual glimpse of what’s happening on July 15th. It’s a neat and original concept, although not one, sadly, that lends itself to a great cinematic experience.
Back to the problems. My first thought is to blame the music since that is what annoyed me first. It’s the kind of slushy amorphous babble beloved of sentimental romantic comedies, full of strings and pre-packaged sentiment. But the soundtrack (complete with pop hits to help shift albums) is a symptom, not a cause. What about the actors, then? That Anne Hathaway with her wobbly Yorkshire accent is not ideally cast is hardly a revelation. She’s too glamorous, too British and something of a marginalised character with little to do except wait for Dex to realise that she’s the answer to his prayers. He, in turn, is a pretty unlikable character in all his various guises – as Jack the lad, smarmy TV presenter, druggie loser, self-pitying fool, incompetent father or belated lover. Is this Jim Sturgess’s fault? Hard to say, but certainly he and Hathaway don’t seem a match made in heaven. One actor who rises up the general mediocrity is Rafe Spall as the terminally unappealing Ian, who gets to be Emma’s boyfriend for a portion of the story, despite being unattractive, boring, tedious and a lousy stand up comedian – who she doesn’t fancy. Spall is excellent.
But it’s not the actors who are the problem. It’s the film they’ve been cast in. You’d have thought that a book as user friendly as One Day would have made a perfect film adaptation, just as you would have thought that Lone Scherfig, director of the wonderful An Education, would be just the woman to come up with something terrific. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. The problem is simple enough. This year-flipping structure which worked so well on the page, simply does not translate into satisfactory cinema. We are offered a series of one off vignettes – Em and Dex on holiday in France, Dex with his dying mother, Em in her dead end job – that don’t lead anywhere, and don’t last long enough to make us feel properly fed. There is no sense of continuity or emotional follow through. Stuff happens, and then 12 months later, it’s long gone, and we’re onto the next thing.
Given the source material, I’m not sure what could have been done differently – apart from not make the film at all, of course. I can’t help wondering whether there hasn’t been some studio interference in the project, possibly over the soundtrack, and probably in some editing issues which have reduced some of the marginal characters into insignificance. Emma’s flatemate Tilly, for example, is a story that never gets started, so that even at her wedding we don’t know who she is, let alone care. And there’s the nub of the problem, we don’t care about these people, which is, you would have thought, the point of the exercise. When we get to the dramatic and arbitrary shock at the end (familiar to the readers of the book), it is just that – a shock, even though I knew what was coming. But I can’t say I cared. I was tired of these two and their shallow preoccupations, and Dex’s capacity to screw everything up, and Emma’s willingness to overlook his flaws. It wasn’t that way with the book, but whether there was ever the capacity for a good film to emerge from the original, we’ll never know. This certainly isn’t it.