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Conflict: between a part as written and a part as played. Hathaway 1 – Nicholls 0


Emma and Dexter


One Day – Lone Scherfig

Da-Da-Di-Da; Da-Da-Da-Di – Rachel Portman’s musical signature to this movie is so evocatively Lawrentian and infuriatingly unforgettable that you expect Anne Hathaway’s Emma to emerge round a corner on a camel rather than her rickety, baseketted ladies bike. This theme regularly surges in and out like the tide to tell those of us without emotional insight or a comfortable relationship with their feelings, i.e. the blokes in the audience, that this is a dramatic moment and we should feel free to emote.

It is astonishing to me that most of the critical reaction to this film has been banging on about Anne Hathaway’s accent. As she is by far, the best thing in the movie, at times the only convincing thing on screen; and as she always sounds unobtrusively English (no Streepy clipped vowels here) and never American, any regional dialectal infelicity can be forgiven: especially given the inauthenticity of much of the mannered, clunky acting going on around her.

I haven’t read the book, but I sincerely hope that David Nicholls’ novel is better than his screenplay adaptation of it. Despite frequent neat ironic quips and sharp little sarcastic thrusts, only Hathaway, with some at times delightfully light playing enables her character to survive the cold dead hand of Nicholls’ ‘once-a-year’ dramatic device. The notion of a couple with an instinctive affinity, unsure of where the boundary between friendship and passion lies or should be set, is a good one; and stretched over time is rich in opportunity for exploring characters and relationships. But is has been so much better done than here: in When Harry Met Sally or more recently the charming Definitely Maybe. Still further back Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in Same Time Next Year perfectly captured the wistful sense of ‘if-only’ and ‘what might have been’ that drives such romances and that touches such a deep nerve in people living out the compromises and sometimes disappointments of real relationships.

I can see that the novel form offers enough space to make 24 hours together each year adequate to establish the credibility of the characters and their constantly confused feelings for one another. The inescapable abbreviation imposed by the movie form reduces this arrangement to a self-destructive habit between two shallow characters. I take it that Jim Sturgess’s superior, public school, emotional alley-cat Dexter, or if you really must – Dex, is true to the book but only Hathaway’s sterling efforts and a bit of good will from the viewer rescues Emma from emerging as a starry-eyed twerp idiotically worshipping a waste-of-space twat.

The plot is certainly economical: after a drunken 1988 graduation celebration in Edinburgh; bright but earnestly geeky, bespectacled Emma and lazily louche Dexter are thrown together, and head back to her flat with all the irresistible passion of two people left with nothing better to do as the Chippy has shut. Dexter rapidly loses what vestige of enthusiasm he had for an easy lay but when caught with his pants up, about to leave, does the decent thing and bestows what we must imagine is a pretty desultory shag upon the sexually self-mocking Emma. They then meet every year from 1988 to 2011. What I imagine in the book is a well-documented journey from spoilt child cad to mature man for Dexter; becomes in Danish Director Scherfig’s oh so literal hands, a kind of magical transformation from selfish shit to selfless stoic with not much in between.

Nicholls and Scherfig have broken William Goldman’s Golden rule of adaptations: you cannot be faithful to the bookin a movie adaptation: but you must be faithful to the spirit of the book. The necessities here are driven by the inescapable differences in form between book and film. This is perhaps why the best movie adaptations are almost always written by someone other than the author of the original book. Scherfig’s direction is pedestrian and predictable throughout and constantly underlined by Portman’s melodic but inappropriately portentous, repetitive music: more Scarlett and Rhett than Emma and Dex.

Sturgess seems deeply uncomfortable as the caddish Dexter and does a lot of acting to overcome his discomfort. Because he seems more at home as the older and wiser Dexter, matured by tragedy, both he and the film become more authentic and therefore affecting towards the end. Mind you, it would take a pretty crass Director not to wring some emotion from us in the last stages of this narrative.

Rafe Spall’s scruffy super-nerd Ian is simply misconceived and therefore this capable actor has to resort to shameless over-playing to try to squeeze some humour from a no-hoper part from which Nicholls left out the funny. Misconceived because having first asked us to accept the beautiful, confident Anne Hathaway as a diffident plain Jane we are then asked to swallow that out of sheer desperation she shacks up with and shares bed and pigsty with a guy not only ugly and fairly dumb, but who Scherfig decides to portray as an irredeemably dirty slob. I suspect a real Ian would have thanked his lucky stars and changed the things he could change, like his underpants, to keep his fortuitous ‘conquest’. It is also a bit tricksy to cast someone as a failed stand-up comic so that we excuse him for not being funny.

I have argued elsewhere that the straight romance is one of the toughest genres in movies: because if we don’t believe in the relationship – there simply is no movie. In One Day it is hard to disentangle the weakness of Nicholls’ characterisations, from Scherfig’s pedestrian efforts to portray them, from especially Sturgess’s inability to make hisplay. No I’m not saying Hathaway is perfect but I did constantly feel a keen sense of a strong intelligent character, unable to stop herself from falling in love with the wrong man, wandering around on screen looking for someone to respond to the woman Hathaway was intimating rather than the sad, passive, wimpy woman Nicholls wrote. As written, it is a mystery to me that women would identify with Emma: but then I’m just a guy – so what would I know about these things: except that guys like ‘Dexy’ need a good smack in the mouth more than yet another woman, in a long line beginning with mummy, to indulge his every whim. Nicholls’ Emma, in the film is a doormat; Hathaway’s Emma, as she plays her, definitely is not.

But it will, in the end, still make you satisfyingly wistful, sad and tearful. So don’t forget the Kleenex.

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