Lazy bourgeois Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and feisty, liberal Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) land in bed together in 1988, the night of their graduation from an English university. Emma is strident and nervous. Dex is a selfish cad, and she wants him to know she knows this — but she also wants him. He’s attracted and amused at first, then deflated; their pawing subsides into cuddling. Yet the attraction simmers on for the better part of the next two decades.
What? Twenty years of opposites attracting and repelling? Even Sam Malone and Diane Chambers took only five from beginning to end. No wonder Hathaway looks so tired and sad in the opening shots of One Day as she bikes through English streets in 2006: she’s been on a marathon. But the movie, based on David Nicholls’ best-selling 2009 novel of the same name, might have been a lot longer. Nicholls’ charming novel had a Same Time, Next Year–style premise, checking in on Dex and Em every single July 15 for 20 years, wherever they might be on that day; in adapting his book for the screen, Nicholls skips some years and does some compression of events.
Even in the skillful hands of director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners), the effect is disjointed. The characters that Nicholls brought so cunningly to life in the book feel rushed through a timeline, tied to an agenda. Dex’s and Em’s individual disappointments and triumphs aren’t properly developed, and their romantic destiny has a pat certainty to it. It’s inevitable that Dex will outgrow his bimbo phase and that Em will ditch the humorless stand-up comedian she met while working in a Mexican restaurant. (He’s played by Rafe Spall, actor Timothy’s son.) The movie is no page turner.
Though Sturgess and Hathaway are appealing, there’s a distracting level of awareness when they are playing younger than they are (he is 33, she 28) and then older: a sense that they are always betwixt and between. Hathaway suffers from uneven-accent syndrome (why not cast a Brit?) and overplays Em’s tendency toward archness, but Sturgess (Across the Universe) nails Dex’s disreputable-little-boy act. His interactions with his disapproving, cancer-riddled mother, played by Patricia Clarkson (if ever a woman could dress you down with her eyes!), are just right, and so is his stint as an obnoxious late-night television host. When the worm turns, however, he’s wan and less convincing.
It’s beyond strange that the primary fault of One Day lies with the screenplay. Nicholls is not inexperienced; he did a nice job adapting his novel Starter for Ten for the movies. How could he — having provided such vivid snapshots not just of Dex and Em’s lives but of the culture and world around them on these many July 15s — write such a hazy movie? One Day is a Nick Hornby–style beach read, a novel that engages so swiftly that reading takes precedent over the next swim or cocktail. It also featured a surprise ending (no spoilers, promise) that, while certainly a master manipulation, gave the book ballast. Here, the same writer takes that out-of-nowhere ending and heavily, clumsily foreshadows it. Did he do it because moviegoers are trained to expect certain sorts of endings to follow from certain kinds of beginnings? Whatever the cause, it’s a graceless change, and One Day, such a treat on the page, ends up being just another day at the movies.