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Saturday 18 November 2017

Film Review: One Day * *

Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess fail to connect
Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess fail to connect

Paul Whitington

I have not read it, but I'm assured by reliable sources that David Nicholls' 2009 novel One Day was a charming, funny and nicely written account of a two-decades-long friendship between a boy and a girl who meet at college. Now, less than two years later, we have this lush movie version adapted by the author, directed by Lone Scherfig, and starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as a pair of British students whose drunken tryst turns into a life-defining relationship.

Much has been made in the British press of the fact that Anne Hathaway enters Gwynnie Paltrow country in taking on an English accent. The precise location of her character's intonation has been the subject of intense speculation: some have suggested Manchester, others many points further north and south.

But all of this is beside the point: Hathaway's accent does wander over hill and dale but remains more or less generically British and is not a source of distraction.

What is distracting is the film's clunky structure, which might work fine in a novel but here undercuts any possibility of interesting or believable drama.

The story begins in Edinburgh on St Swithin's Day (July 15), 1988, as a group of graduating students are wandering home after a drunken night out. Among them are Dexter (Sturgess), a debonair upper middle-class rake, and Emma (Hathaway), a shy, bookish girl from a humbler background.

To Emma's surprise, Dexter makes a play for her and they end up back at her place. Through a mixture or her awkwardness and his tiredness, they do not end up making love and instead decide to become friends.

One Day follows that friendship through almost 30 years of growth and change. After college Emma and Dexter both move to London, but while Emma gets stuck in a dead-end waitressing job at a dodgy Mexican-themed restaurant, Dexter quickly thrives. He breaks into television and becomes the glib host of a trashy but very popular late-night music and chat show.

But fame changes Dex: as the 80s bleeds into the 90s, he develops a serious coke habit and begins affecting a 'mockney' accent on the show.

Through all of this Emma remains his faithful friend, but, as he grows more and more obnoxious, even her patience begins to wear thin. To make matters worse, Emma has to watch him love and leave a succession of bimbos while she contends with the bitter truth that her love for him will in all likelihood remain unrequited. But life rarely turns out as you expect, and One Day's plot twists and turns at regular intervals.

However, instead of proceeding organically, as it were, One Day's storyline jumps from Swithin's Day to Swithin's Day, with the year in question appearing at the screen's corner in an opulent serif font. At first this seems charming, but it soon becomes irritating, and the choppy, stop-start format plays havoc with the film's dramatic development.

The script, in addition, is curiously lop-sided. While we find out all about Dexter's parents, his remote father (the excellent Ken Stott) and his arty, delicate mother, Emma's background remains a total mystery, and as a consequence she comes across as a bit of concocted cypher.

A decent supporting cast is not well used. Rafe Spall, who so memorably portrayed an underworld sociopath in the recent BBC drama The Shadow Line, seems ill at ease here playing a would-be stand-up comic. And Patricia Clarkson struggles with both her English accent and the underwritten role of Dexter's mother. But a much more significant problem is the lack of chemistry between Sturgess and Hathaway.

Sturgess is a likeable but slight actor and struggles to hold his own against Hathaway's heavier, showier style. There's an awkwardness to their interactions, and Hathaway seems to have a deadly effect on comedy. She's probably miscast as a character who should have come across as a charming kook, but, in fairness to her and Sturgess, I don't think anyone could have made this unwieldy script work.

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