Film review: One Day

Please be aware – this review contains major plot spoilers (which won’t, in my opinion, ruin your experience of the film or even the book, but I’m just warning you…)

One Day - the film

One Day - the film poster

I was expecting to hate it. I was expecting to get annoyed and frustrated; get all het up at the injustice of it all, and rail against the dazzle of celebrity ruining what was a surprisingly comforting, cry-and-laugh-out-loud, easy-to-read, get-wrapped-up-in, and most importantly, down-to-Earth, English book. Anne Hathaway? As Emma Morley? Intelligent, working-class, witty but unconfident, vulnerable, Edinburgh University-going, Yorkshire-girl Emma Morley? You don’t mean the same Anne Hathaway that played the plain-to-dazzling New York magazine assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, with the perfect smile, glossy hair, red carpet-tiny waist and unmistakeably American accent? Oh, you do. Riiight. Cue much cynical eye-rolling and exasperated hand-wringing at Hollywood’s slavish kowtowing to the bottom line rather than the integrity of a simple, well-told and much loved story. In the past week, Hathaway has appeared on a BBC list of actors who have served up terrible accents in films (including the infamous cockney of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins), while Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour even broadcast a programme asking whether ‘beautiful actresses can or should play plain girls’, prefacing it by saying that ‘if the world was fair, an unknown but talented Yorkshire actress would have played Emma Morley’. I was prepared to feel the same, and I dutifully paid for my ticket, found my seat, folded my arms, and waited.

I wasn’t prepared to actually, gasp, like it. But like it, I did.

One Day

One Day - your tube-travelling companion

At one point, One Day was the book everyone was reading on the tube. You couldn’t move for people engrossed in the orange and white cover, interesting but just ubiquitous enough for me to not actually want to read it. I’ve always been like that; bit behind the curve, always thinking that if it’s worth getting interested in it, I’ll get round to it eventually.

American medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is another example; steadfastly refused to watch it while it was A Big Thing; unashamed fan now it’s dropped off most of my friends’ radar. I do this, I think, because I refuse to feel like some sheep being shepherded by the latest trends (immune to the consumerist battle-axe, me). In fact, I blatantly go out of my way NOT to read the latest bestseller, not to wear the recent fashions (as if they’d look good on me anyway), simply because (I like to tell myself) I prefer the enjoyment of discovering something in a way that makes me feel that I myself have just stumbled across it. Read something just because everyone else is, pah! No imagination! Some would call this stubborn, others pretentious, others delusional. It is all these things, but hear me out. I do usually get around to reading or watching whatever the big thing is, and, almost invariably, realise what I’ve been missing, and then unabashedly jump on whatever bandwagon is now still trailing behind it, feeling happy that I’ve finally found the thing, but smug that I’ve missed the crowds. It’s like a tourist trap without the tourists. Best of both worlds.

Alas, I read One Day in exactly this manner. I borrowed a dog-eared copy from an acquaintance, simply to see what I’d missed, amid rumours they were making a film of it. And I read it in two days – if I didn’t have a job, I’d have read in in about three hours. I could not put it down. Almost immediately, I loved it like an old friend, carried it around with me, hunkered down in bed with it and wrapped myself around the casual words like the duvet around my shoulders. I became one of those people on the tube with it! I laughed and leaked tears of recognition, nostalgia and sadness as Dexter and Emma graduated from University, talked about the future, went off to teach English in Europe and find themselves in India (Dexter; I’ve just completed my TEFL qualification and am saving for a much-longed-for trip to the sub-continent), wilted slowly in a job going nowhere (Emma; I long to try something different, and spent six long months unemployed thinking no-one would ever give me a chance), and then taking wildly different directions in careers that ultimately, end up OK. The book had exactly the right dose of realism and banality, with just the amount of hope and love needed to stave off the black cloud of total depression. It was, in effect, life, in a book – with a sprinkling of sentimentality just to keep it interesting. Not a perfect book, not an epic, but a paperback with meaning. It grabbed a place in my heart and wouldn’t leave.

And so, when I heard there was a film being made, I was apprehensive but intrigued. Most film adaptations are, frankly, crap. Only Chocolat, helped hugely by the presence of a simply delectable Johnny Depp, deserves to be called ‘better than the book’. All others, while complementary, cannot be seen without reading the original text – see The Time Traveller’s Wife, or all the Harry Potter films, for more details. Adaptations gloss over intricacies; they shorten, they merge, they beautify, they change, they simplify, they ruin. This adaptation of One Day, which I happily discovered was directed by the very fantastic Lone Scherfig of wonderfully fantastic film An Education, did all of these things except the very latter.

Admittedly, elements of the book were taken out. Simply watching the film, we know much less about the characters’ inner dialogues. We know much less of Emma’s several disastrous relationships prior to her final one. We know much less about her lack of confidence, her haphazard career, her emotional letters to her wandering paramour, her sense of helplessness, her struggle to publish her novels, her changing feelings towards Dexter. We know much less about Dexter’s own hidden turmoil, his contradictions, his flaws, his shifting personality from young and carefree to older and more wretched. We feel much less for his family when he arrives to see his ill mother, still-drunk from the night before. We know far less about the tenderness he feels for his daughter, and the pain following his divorce, and his steadfast ability to recover after losing his best friend. What we see is but half the story. But somehow, it still works.

The film capitalises on what film does best, and what books cannot quite, for all their descriptions, offer: the wonders of light and sound. Throughout, the sweeping views and dismal yet soft light of Edinburgh, the noise and jarring technicolour of nineties television, the grating quality of the crap flats Emma lives in when she first moves to London, the awful but hilarious tragedy of her former flatmate getting married to the tune of Robbie Williams’ classic nineties hit ‘Angels’, all help bring the film closer. We may know less about the characters, but we are no less involved in their story for it – everything feels raw; real.

Rachel Portman, who also worked on the inimitably wonderful score for Chocolat, again excels here, with the music never getting in the way of the script, always enhancing the scene, building eventually to a truly beautiful, jazz-infused blend of sound when Emma comes running after a dejected Dexter during some of the later scenes in Paris. It helps present a sensitive, if slightly patchy, rendition of these characters’ muddle through their own lives.

Anne Hathaway, One Day

The ever-watchable Anne Hathaway, and Jim Sturgess, scrub up well as their much-loved characters, Emma and Dexter

And, for all the watchwords on Hathaway’s mis-casting, by the end, I came to love her just as much as the other, more-obviously-cast characters. Ok, so she is a little gorgeous to truly pull off Emma’s complete lack of confidence and shabby, ‘normal-girl’ appearance. And her accent wavers like a tree branch in the wind, but she still convinces as Emma, still scrubs up pretty well as a pale-skinned, not-especially-groomed, bookish girl from up North. Jim Sturgess, who I admit to not consciously knowing before this film, is absolutely spot on as Dexter, going effortlessly from slightly-annoying yet boyishly-confident graduate to lost and lonely father and widower, wearing the lines, grey hair and heavy shoulder of near-middle age just as well as the tanned, toned, polished and spoiled nonchalance of youth. Rafe Spall, as Emma’s doomed boyfriend Ian, is also fantastic, capturing the trying-too-hard yet heartbreaking sweetness, and, crucially, tragically unfunny, demeanour of the character author David Nicholls paints so brilliantly in the book. Spall steals the scene after Emma’s death, delivering an exchange between himself and Dexter in such a touching, heartfelt way that the vulnerability and simple humanity of both men are revealed anew. Dexter’s father doesn’t quite corner the role I’d imagined from the book as a well-meaning, softly-spoken, quietly heartbroken older man trying to set his son on the right road while dealing with the bone-crushing sadness of his wife’s terminal cancer. This dad was more a character of angry ridicule, which jarred slightly – although Dexter’s mother, as the one-time glamorous beauty, was more on the mark. However, girl-of-the moment Romola Garai pleasantly surprises as Dexter’s sometime-wife Sylvie. I imagined her to be much skinnier and spikier in the book than shown here, but she does bring a perhaps-needed sympathy to the character, fleshing out the somewhat obvious ‘villain’ role given to her in the book into something more understandable, maternal and touching. Through her portrayal, we see some of Dexter’s pain following Emma’s death, some of his desire to improve himself following the birth of his daughter – his longing to find himself after long, lost years.

On a similar note, congratulations must go to the makeup team of this film, which charms entirely in its portrayal of the two leads over two critical decades. Emma is pretty ageless, her clothes becoming more refined and her hair slightly choppier, although her gradual eyebags do suggest two decades of full-time work may have impacted somewhat. On the other hand, Dexter’s transition from beautiful twenty-something, to sweaty, drug-addicted thirty-something, to arrestingly-gorgeous salt-and-pepper forty-something is a delight to behold (Sturgess’s melt-in-the-mouth smile does have something to do with my appreciation of this, I’ll admit).

So while One Day wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t the crushing disappointment I’d been dreading either. More than once, the entire cinema including myself laughed out loud – at the biting wit, at the matter-of-factness, at the recognisable yet hilarious dreariness of everyday life and the tender sense of lost hope – while my friends, who (shame on them!) hadn’t yet read to the end of the book, clapped their hands over their mouths in suitable shock at the moment when poor Emma is mowed down by a truck as she cycles home. There wasn’t a dry eye among us when the penny dropped that the lives we’d hitherto invested so much into had to continue without the girl we’d been rooting for. The film, while missing out huge chunks of the plot, was wholly engaging, enveloping the entire audience in a warm state of contentment, tempered just enough with the lingering sensation that life never quite seems to turn in to what you thought it would; to what you think it is. Yes, the film made me want to take the book out again, and savour the forgotten-intricacies of the story like flavours in a subtly-spiced sauce, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss it entirely. It sits alongside the book – the soundtrack, if you will, playing along in the background to bring a bit of real life to what will always be, sadly but ultimately, just words on a page.

I expected to hate it – I was wrong. Like the book says on its instantly recognisable front cover: in word form or film, One Day is quite simply, ‘a modern-day classic’ – and one day, when I look back on it in years to come, it may well become my own annual time-capsule, a quick-fire shortcut to these halcyon days of being young, single, free but frustrated in the post-post-graduation, recession-hit London haze. I don’t know what the future will bring, but, as One Day addresses, neither does anyone. Better grab the opportunities as they come your way, it suggests, or it might be too late. Life, it says, has a habit of not working out the way you want. That’s what makes it so interesting, and, like this film – ultimately, and breathtakingly, bittersweet.

One thought on “Film review: One Day

  1. Great Review! Sturgess and Hathaway are fun to watch together, but the rest of the film just feels like a gimmick that was done wrong, and brings nothing new at all to the conventions of the romantic drama.

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