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Lone Scherfig, the Danish director who is fast becoming one of the foremost interpreters of British culture, has performed a bit of magic in One Day, the film adaptation of David Nicholls’ best-selling novel. The literary conceit behind the novel was that a reader could track the lives and friendship of two characters — lower class, politically engaged Emma Morley and wealthy, handsome Dexter Mayhew — over two decades through a brief snapshot of their evolving relationship revealed on a single day, that being July 15 of each year.
In this film version, Scherfig (An Education) has orchestrated each short segment so the episodes flow smoothly together, making it feel of a whole rather than disjointed bits with costume changes. The classic three-act structure of most romantic dramas isn’t so much dismissed as subverted into tiny beats that chart the ups-and-downs of a relationship that threatens to turn romantic about as often as it threatens to crumble apart.
With two glamorous stars in Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess and an appealing mix of romantic locations, the Focus Features movie should attract a following from college age upwards, no doubt skewing toward female audiences.
Nicholls adapted his own novel to the screen but someone along the way — Scherfig? — gave him some killer notes for he has considerably improved the story from his novel. The novel represented one of the longest cases of coitus interruptus in literary history. It began with the couple, newly graduated from university in Edinburgh, in bed in 1988 but they don’t consummate their feelings for one another until 2001! Much worse, the novel’s Dex is a louse from Day One. Which makes Em a loser for mooning over him for so many years.
In the movie though, Nicholls has considerably freshened up his male protagonist by letting his charm and not his alcoholism shine through the early years. Drink only takes its toll as his career as a “TV presenter” collapses. Now you see what Em sees in Dex — and why she fights for him to reclaim his better side.
Other than reducing Dex’s globetrotting to occasional excursions to France, the movie stays true to the novel’s dramatic trajectory but makes each character more likeable and less bedraggled. You actually now root for them to hook up and wonder (as you do in the novel) what takes them so long.
They do begin in Emma’s bed on the dawn following graduation night. This is July 15, 1988, which is St. Swithin Day in Britain, the thematic purpose of which is never announced. Em’s glasses are supposed to make her an ugly duckling — with Hathaway in the role this hoary device fails miserably — but she does catch the young woman’s coltish behavior and sly wit very well. Meanwhile Sturgess is the epitome of an impetuous charmer that nevertheless has a talent for self-destruction, something a young woman might find dangerously attractive.
The movie rushes through their lighthearted early years as good friends, where Em finds the temerity to call Dex’s dad (Ken Stott) a “bourgeois fascist” — this remark occurs off-camera — and Dex finds himself enormously attracted to Em only to admit he feels that way about nearly every pretty woman he encounters.
His TV career skyrockets while Em struggles to find herself in low-wage jobs as a waitress at a horrible Mexican restaurant in London and later as a teacher. Eventually, Dex crashes to earth at more or less the same time Em becomes an accomplished writer of children’s books.
The point is made, and then made again, that Dex is at his best whenever Em is around. Otherwise, as his mother (Patricia Clarkson) sadly says, “I worry that you’re not very nice anymore.”
Em develops a relationship with a third-rate stand-up comic, Ian (Rafe Spall), which is clearly a mistake, while Dex runs through girlfriends such as over-caffeinated fellow presenter Suki (Georgia King) to wind up finally married to the lovely but high maintenance Sylvie (Romola Garai) with whom he has a daughter.
Supporting characters are even more peripheral in the movie — quick sketches of personalities to indicate the passage of interests by the protagonists. Those that are allowed to emerge more fully as time passes are Dex’s parents, his moral compass when Em is not around, and Ian, the comic who feels he must be perpetually “on” to keep people, even his girlfriend, entertained.
Getting somewhat lost in the transition to the screen is Em’s intellectual curiosity, her social conscience and ambitions. Dex calls her the “smartest person I know” but you don’t really know why. What is thankfullylost in transition though is Dex’s continual irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. This is considerably toned down here so he is able, as his mother predicts, to become a good man.
Scherfig makes the most of each segment, cleverly introduced by on-screen titles that blend into each new scene. She zeroes in on quick dialogue exchanges or transitional elements to establish new situations and priorities, then moves the relationship at the heart of her story along with considerable skill. Working with editor Barney Pilling, the director turns the evolution of Em and Dex into a contemplation on friendship and love that is in direct contrast to the wham-bam-thank-you-m’am of many screen romances. In a curious way, this movie is the direct inversion of another fine romantic film this summer, Friends With Benefits. That film drenched the couple in sex only for love to emerge. Here a friendship begun with a deep need for the other person’s companionship and approval only gradually gives way to romance and then love.
The filmmakers wisely chose not to place much emphasis on aging their fairly young actors but rather leave this up to these capable thespians. Hathaway, who has a convincing English accent, does shorten her hair for the later sequences but more importantly she shows you that Em has slowly come to learn and accept who she is and become much stronger for this evolution.
With this film, Sturgess stakes his claim as the new Hugh Grant only without the fussy mannerisms that has infected many of the latter’s performances. Sturgess can now play any number of charming Englishmen with any number of weaknesses and flaws that women easily forgive.
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and production designer Mark Tidesley give the drama the gloss of the film’s many splendid locations around Edinburgh, Paris, London and various country and sea sides without indulging in too much nostalgia for the changing periods. Rachel Portman’s lush and wistful score accentuates the film’s themes and the ultimate melancholy that comes in the final chapter of Em and Dex.
Opens: August 19 (Focus Features)
Production companies: A Focus Features/Random House Films in association with Film4 production of a Color Force production
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Ken Stott, Romola Garai, Rafe Spall, Jodie Whittaker, Jamie Sives, Georgia King
Director: Lone Sherfig
Screenwriter: David Nicholls
Based on the novel by: David Nicholls
Producer: Nina Jacobson
Executive producer: Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Benoît Delhomme
Production designer: Mark Tidesley
Music: Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Barney Pilling
PG-13 rating, 107 minutes
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