Twenty Tattered Love Letters

One Day ★★
(USA, 107 min.)
Dir. Lone Scherfig, Writ. David Nicholls.
Starring: Jim Strugess, Anne Hathaway, Patricia Clarkson, Romola Garai, Rafe Spall.
After the wonderment of The Help, I guess it was too much to hope for a second great adaptation in such a short time. This is not to say that films cannot do what novels can (The Help proves otherwise); it’s just that this adaptation of One Day – penned by novelist David Nicholls himself – lacks the quirk, charm, and lovey-dovey sweetness of the novel. More importantly, the formal trick of One Day, which presents each chapter as a day in the lives of Emma and Dexter on the anniversary of their first date, simply dulls the poignancy of this cinematic tale of unrequited love. 

It’s July 15, 1988 – St. Swithin’s Day, in fact – and Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Strugess) have just graduated from the University of Edinburgh. They share a drunken stumble back to Emma’s flat and then a tender but unconsummated night of cuddling. On July 15, 1989, Em and Dex seem to be moving elsewhere, literally. As Dexter helps Emma move into her new London flat, he reminds her that his plane to India leaves shortly. One Day follows the St. Swithin’s Day lore and continues the same trajectory for many years. Each new “day” shows how the dynamic in the relationship of Dex and Em changes depending on the circumstances brought to them within the New Year.
In some regards, Nicholls’s adaptation of his own book succeeds, for he selectively abbreviates some anniversaries in order to allow the more vital chapters develop the relationship thoroughly. At the same time, some of the blips and blurbs of One Day might best have been scrapped altogether in order to allow more screen time for full-bodied episodes. (And since the film uses title cards to indicate the time changes, it’s odd that it does not do so.) More problematic is how the adaptation greatly favours Dexter’s life story, rather than his and Emma’s equally. This choice is a slight shortcoming because, as anyone who has read the novel knows, Dexter is hardly the more likable character of the two: he is smug, arrogant, and completely unworthy of Emma, especially the middle years of their relationship. By giving Emma a raw deal, Nicholls makes the tale far less heart-rending. One of the greatest strengths of the novel is seeing Emma’s life unfold into a series of disappointments, and it’s both sad and moving to continually turn the page and see Emma settle in life while Dexter flourishes in his successful and self-indulgent lifestyle. By withholding more insight into her situation, the film makes the love between Emma and Dexter less believable, for it is far more tangible from the point of view of Emma’s character.
Nevertheless, several of the chapters offer a substantial treatment of their relationship – particularly the dinner scene, wedding scene, and the holiday sequence – and provide some worthy rom-com goodness. Especially when Sturgess and Hathaway make for such a pleasant date, One Day is funny, sweet, and touching. Unfortunately, Hathaway’s British accent is rather spotty and proves a mild distraction from her otherwise sharp and endearing performance as Emma Morley. Sturgess fares well too, and makes Dexter far less repugnant than he could have been, given the lopsided script.
Under the direction of Lone Scherfig (An Education), the well-developed sequences hint at greatness. Perhaps if Nicholls had been braver to erase more of his own text, or bolder to make Emma more pitiable, One Day could have exceeded its source text. As it is, One Day is more like a series of torn love letters pieced together with Scotch tape: when one can clearly make sense of it, it warms the heart; however, all the elliptical shards make it equally muddling. 

One Day is currently playing in wide release