Directed by Lone Scherfig, 2011
Anne Hathaway – Emma Morley
Jim Sturgess – Dexter Mayhew
Rafe Spall – Ian
Patricia Clarkson – Alison Mayhew (Dexter’s mother)
Tom Misun – Callum
Romola Garai – Sylvie
It’s so difficult to assess. Coming out of the cinema a man was muttering “terrible” and his companion added “awful. A travesty.” I thoroughly enoyed it. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t bowled over by the book. An observation was that men think it’s a deeply moving portrayal of a woman. Women think it an enjoyable enough book, but not that good. Films of enormously popular novels (see Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) are on a hiding to nothing, and predictably reviews of this film run to two and three stars or less.
The book’s selling point was its structure: a snapshot on the same day every year of the lives of two people, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew. Emma’s a down-to-Earth, left-wing Yorkshire lass who’s just got a double-first. Dexter’s a posh public school boy with a lower second degree. They spent a chaste night in bed together on July 15th 1988, their last day at Edinburgh University, then we see their lives on that day every year for the next twenty years. In the novel it finishes in 2008. In the film that shifts to 2011. So there are twenty shifts of year, and in some years, they’re apart, which requires different scenes. It’s marked throughout by changing on-screen titles. It’s fun wondering when the titles will pop up and how they’ll disappear. I liked seeing the year title on Emma’s computer screensaver in one scene. Previews of the film version wondered how they’d cope with the time shifts. They do.
David Nicholls did his own screenplay from his novel, and as an accomplished screenwriter (Cold Feet and many adaptations) he can have no complaints about what the film did. Nicholls adapted it, and opted for 107 minutes. That might be a sign of a modest British film budget, but I think it was a deliberate constraint. 107 is the right length for a RomCom. The novel, while not overly long, read aloud in the word-for-word version (WholeStory Audio Books), runs to 16.5 hours. It would work extremely well in a six part TV series, running to six hours, and Emma Morley is a character the British reading public have taken to heart so well, that I wouldn’t be surpised if that happens to One Day… one day.
Focussing down to 107 minutes means the ruthless excision of sub-plots, and a great deal of the very funny social commentary in the book has gone. Nicholl’s book was full of bits where you went, ‘Yes! That’s so true!’ such as a passing aside that at weddings there’s always a man dressed in a kilt, who turns out to be English. The film hones in much more intently on Emma and Dexter. I also felt that the speed at which it races through the early years might leave someone who hasn’t read the novel floundering somewhat on plot. It’s hard to tell. Dexter’s various romances as an ELT teacher in the book get condensed into one phone call with Emma, but the setting (no plot spoilers) compensates and tells the necessary story in ten seconds. That’s what film can do. Having read the novel gives you a lot of back story which enriches the film experience, and that works because it’s largely faithful to the original. There are points where Nicholls has revised the plot slightly (as John Fowles did with the film adaptation of The Magus). There are very few of these revisions which is good because they interfere with your concentration (Did they actually have sex on holiday in the book? Or did they continue to avoid it?) Mostly it doesn’t matter. France by car in the film made more economic production sense than a Greek island by plane and boat in the book. The nudist beach was a great addition. Dexter’s EFL teacher days shift from Rome to Paris too. After all, they need to be in Paris near the end when Emma’s writing career has taken off. It makes sense.
Emma and Dexter on platonic (?) holiday in France
I wondered whether an extra five or ten minutes would have helped someone coming to the film fresh. I didn’t think Dexter’s transition to yoof-TV presenter was given enough time. I was disappointed to see the hilarious co-presenter Paula … sorry Suki … reduced to a couple of lines. The incident in the book where she swigs from Dexter’s water bottle on air, not realizing he’s filled it with neat vodka, is great in the book, and would have added a minute at most. It’s gone. Several characters are reduced to a few lines for a few seconds, but the astute casting … Georgia King for Suki, Matt Berry for Dexter’s agent, Aaron … compensates. These are some of the many moments you have to excise, but I thought the story badly missed five minutes on Emma as schoolteacher. That sub-plot was reduced to one shot of the line-up of the musical she produced. We lose her seedy affair with the headmaster on the office carpet, and we lose the Afro-Caribbean girl in the musical who inspires Emma’s successful series of novels. That path (But how could they cut …) swiftly leads you to the indigestible 140 minute film, and this sort of film is always best at around 95 to 105. However, Four Weddings and A Funeral, is ten minutes longer than One Day and ten minutes extra could have added depth and clarity without destroying pace. And thankfully one of the great episodes, where Dexter visits his future wife’s parents, is intact.
Flashback to their first day together in Edinburgh
We went to see it because Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway are the leads. Sturgess was brilliant in the under-rated Across The Universe and we wanted to see him with Hathaway. One concern of previews is that Hathaway is too film-star gorgeous for Emma. Emma has frumpy and plumpy and spotty phases. In those teenage scoring terms on looks (out of ten), Emma is around a 7 when she meets Dexter, who is the university hunk, a 9/10 in appearance. Over the course of the story Dexter goes off the boil and descends to a 6/7, while Emma blossoms into at least a 9. That is an issue. Hathaway playing plain and frumpy is still going to be a 9/10. However, I noticed how carefully she did “unsexy” walking, and they mark the changes with clothes and hairstyle.
Dexter at his worst as yoof-TV monster; Emma dressed up in a nice frock
Both turn in entrancing performances, and they have (or get the illusion) of on-screen chemistry. It’s highly enjoyable. I want to see it again when the book has faded a little more from my memory, so that it stops sitting on my shoulder whispering But what about … in my ear.
Paris: Emma is now a success, Dexter recently-divorced
The accent issue …
… got mentioned in every review. It’s a non-issue. In the book, class difference is a major and very British concern. That’s virtually eliminated from the film, which is designed hopefully for wider audiences. Accents are part of the class issue.
Because Hathaway is American, reviewers seemed to spend the entire film fixated on possible accent slips. There have been whole articles on her accent. Emma is Yorkshire. OK, but at the start she’s been at Edinburgh University for four years (Scottish courses are four years). At the end she’s been in London for twenty years. She would not be walking round saying Eeh, bah, gum … I’ll go t’ foot of our stairs … My mother was born in South Wales, and after sixty years in the south had not a trace of accent until she ran into Welsh relatives. At reunions, university contemporaries from the north and midlands turn out to have diluted their accents considerably over 30 years. It’s what happens. The real Emma (if a fictional character can be called real!) would have a modified and somewhat mixed accent. Hathaway does well enough. Ignore the issue. Don’t listen for it. Incidentally, Patricia Clarkson turns in an impeccable English accent and a beautiful and poignant performance as Dexter’s mother, and she was born in New Orleans.
Dexter’s days as an itinerant EFL teacher, with his mum in Paris.
OK, let’s squeeze the accent issue a little more. Accent is an issue for Dexter, because like Nigel Kennedy and other public school boys before him, he adopts a strangulated Estuary accent for his Yoof-TV career, which contrasts with his native RP (Received pronunciation). In fact Sturgess adopts a neutral RP most of the time, rather than the “Advanced” public school RP. I’ve known three Wykehamists (pupils of Winchester College) and I often visit the excellent independent bookshop next to this ancient school. Few of them, if any, can hit a tone as neutral as Sturgess’s Dexter. I’d say Sturgess “fails” to get a Winchester public school accent just as much as Hathaway “fails” to get any Yorkshire nuances. It’s totally irrelevant.
We listened right through the word-for-word audio version (see article on Audio Books). Anne Bentnick uses accents very well throughout, and it’s hard for me not to hear her Yorkshire for Emma, and her public school Dexter and her wonderful Suki. In the book, Emma’s failed comedian boyfriend, Ian, is from Swindon, an accent which Bentick does well. Rafe Spall drops that in the film which is a pity, but I think it’s right. Swindon immediately conjures up Gareth in The Office, or Gareth’s co-creator, Stephen Merchant. Ian can be funny without that reference and he is. Ian is much more disgusting in the book, and while the conversation from the toilet seat is retained, we lose the horrible snotty colds and stomach upsets.
Emma has dinner with Ian (Rafe Spall)
When you have to create dozens of characters in an audio book, accent is the way to distinguish them. In the audio book, Dexter’s dad unaccountably becomes Welsh, with no textual reference. That jarred, and I was relieved to see him without that accent in the film. All the secondary parts are well-done.
Romola Garai plays Dexter’s humourless upper middle class wife, Sylvie.
Picky picky points on props
At the beginning, Emma puts on a record as she slips into the bathroom. It has the distinctive silver blue Motown label. Motown isn’t just a label, it’s a sound, so you expect 80s Motown to emerge. You hear Talking About A Revolution, which is Tracey Chapman (and on the Elektra label). An appropriate song for Emma’s right-on image, but when I saw the record revolve I was waiting for Lionel Richie or Stevie Wonder. Maybe they intended Lionel crooning Easy … like Sunday morning (which it is) then had second thoughts.
The Triumph Herald
Dexter and Emma in Triumph Herald arriving in France
They set off for France in a 1966 Triumph Herald Convertible. Any survivors by the early 90s would never have made it that far. One of the most uncomfortable and unreliable cars on the planet and much too old and feminine for Dexter … perhaps he borrowed it from his mum. OK, it’s a pretty car. It’s a convertible, so you can see them. It looks great.
Typewriters and computers
Emma has an old blue typewriter marking her role as a poet and novelist. Why is it sitting next to her ageing and keyboard-less Mac with its screen turned to portrait shape? Lucky talisman?