One Day

When my sister learned that I was going to see One Day, the new film starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, last night, her reaction wasn’t surprising — “But, but… that’s a chick flick!”

I’ve read the novel,” I said, “and the novel’s about as far from chick lit as you can get.” Yes, the trailers do make the film adaptation look a bit chick flick-ish…

…or possibly something in the romantic comedy vein…

…but if the movie at all followed the book, I said, then the movie wouldn’t be a chick flick or a romantic comedy.

Yes, I laughed at One Day (it’s a funny movie) and I cried at One Day (it’s a touching and sad movie), but I can safely say that One Day is neither a chick flick nor a romantic comedy.

One Day theatrical poster

It’s exactly what the book is — a study of two lives running in parallel and occasionally intersecting, seen at snapshots a year apart in time and spanning twenty years, give or take.

David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay from his own novel, takes some liberties with the book’s chronology; the opening scenes start very late in book, with Anne Hathaway’s Emma on her bicycle, and then the movie rewinds to the post-graduation celebrations at the University of Edinburgh in 1998, when Emma Morley first met Dexter Mayhew. But then we quickly reach the book’s first scene, with Em and Dex in a state of extreme undress in Em’s flat, and then the movie follows the same basic structure as the novel — moving forward to show us where Em and Dex are in their lives on successive July 15ths — until the very end where instead of one year jumps we get two-year jumps between scenes.

Unlike the book, which often shows Em and Dex apart on the anniversary of their first meeting, the movie either invents a new scene to show their connection (such as on the first anniversary of their meeting, where Dex helps Em to move into a new apartment in London before he flies off to “find himself”) or focuses on the circumstances of their connection that year rather than on the context around it. This has an interesting effect — in the years following the holiday Em and Dex take together, they both become unlikeable and unpleasant people to a certain degree in the novel, but in shifting the focus and removing some of the novel’s characters (such as the people Em works with at the school), the film smooths some of the edges from Em and Dex and portrays them in a more flattering light. Dexter doesn’t fall quite as far into pathetic debauchery as he does in the book, and Emma seems more finished and less aimless than she is in the novel. On the downside, some of the relationships in the film feel more insubstantial than they do in the book, such as between Dex and Ian (a late scene between them seems out-of-place) and Dex and Sylvie (who seems like an inexplicable choice for Dex). Also, the film’s chronology makes Em’s relationship with Ian last longer than it did in the book. At least, it feels like it lasted longer in the movie than it did in the book.

Some of the film’s changes are to its advantage. Em and Dex’s reconciliation at Tilly’s wedding is staged on a rooftop overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral at night, and it’s visually more interesting than the hedge maze in which they get lost in the novel. Dex’s visit to Em’s flat in Paris has a few added wrinkles beyond the novel’s version. And the film handles the story’s conclusion the way I wished the novel had done — by bringing together the flashback sequences to the day they met for one extended sequence.

But there are still things from the book that I missed. For instance, I missed Dex’s impassioned letter to Em which he wrote on the second anniversary of their meeting, or Em’s baffling meeting with a publisher about the manuscript for her first young adult novel. But what I missed most of all were the hints that built up slowly in the novel’s last half that it was not the first meeting between Dex and Em, as shown in the novel, that was the significant moment in their lives and forged the first significant connection between them but rather the events of the day that ensued in 1988 that indeliably linked them together.

I keep talking about One Day the film as it compares to One Day the book, which is an unfair comparison. A 110 minute movie does not have the space of characterization and description that a 400 page novel has. It suffices that the movie has the general shape of the novel, and where the script varies from the novel it does so in ways that reinforce and focus on the central conceit of the novel — how do Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew grow and develop over twenty years of their life? In that regard, as an adaptation, One Day does an admirable job.

As a film, how does One Day fare on its own terms? Quite well, I think. I can’t fault the performances, especially that of Jim Sturgess who has a greater emotional range to play as Dexter reaches higher heights and lower lows. I know that some have criticized Anne Hathaway’s accent, but I was never thrown by it, though I can’t speak to its authenticity or lack thereof. Their relationship may not have had the same depth as their characters had in the novel, but as co-leads they played off one another well and they had clear chemistry on-screen. Sturgess and Hathaway were also convincing at the different ages they played throughout the film. Of the two performances, I rate Sturgess’ more highly; he has the greater emotional range to convey.

I have no real thoughts on the direction except that it was unobtrusive. Oh, there were cutesy moments as the scene shifted to a new year, but by and large the camera work didn’t call attention to itself. The world the film inhabits is vibrant and gorgeous.

There is nothing more to say about the story beyond what I’ve already said. One Day is twenty years in the life of two friends, told in snippets a year apart. It’s sometimes romantic, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes moving in the same way that life itself moves from the romantic and funny to the sad and moving. There’s a line late in the movie (which also appears in the trailer) that sums up the idea behind the story — “Whatever happens tomorrow, we had today, and I’ll always remember it.”

One Day may not be groundbreaking and it may not be the deepest, most meaningful film in the world, but its story of friendship and life’s choices is pleasantly enjoyable and has real resonance, especially to someone in their mid-thirties to mid-forties who lived through the same times as Em and Dex and faced many of the same problems. Even if the film can’t be pigeonholed (not-quite-romance? not-a-chick-flick?) and the film lacks the depth and intimacy of the novel (which you should read right now), One Day does its own thing and it’s the better for it.

Originally published here.