One key to the successful romantic film story: You've got to understand what these people see in each other and root for them to get together.
Which, unfortunately, is not the case with Lone Scherfig's film of David Nicholls' novel, One Day, opening Friday. As good as Anne Hathaway is -- as good as Jim Sturgess is, for that matter -- Scherfig's film never answers its central question or makes you care whether they share the future they obviously should be meant to have.
The gimmick of Nicholls' book -- and Scherfig's movie -- is indistinct here. Having not read the novel, I can only assume that it took a sentence to explain why the story drops in on this couple every year on July 15 -- St. Swithun's Day, the day they almost hooked up after just graduating from college in London. On that day in 1988, Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) pair off for what turns out to be a platonic night, marred but also made special by miscues on both sides.
So the story checks back with them each year on this date. Dex's career -- as a TV personality -- begins to take off; Emma's career -- as a writer, apparently -- takes a back seat to just keeping her financial head above water. That means waitressing at a Mexican restaurant and, eventually, pairing up with a would-be stand-up comic named Ian (Rafe Spall).
Dex, in turn, runs through a variety of birds - in the Swinging London sense, despite the fact that it's the early '90s -- but finds new stirrings each time he reconnects with Emma. Emma obviously carries a serious torch for him, but you figure that out from Hathaway's performance -- a model of restraint and clarity - rather than from Nicholls' script.
As I said, there is never a real explanation for the annual pop-in except that that's the story's gimmick. Sometimes they act as though they've just seen each other the day before. Sometimes they don't see each other at all on that date. The connection between them is obviously there - but only because the movie tells us so.
Indeed, Sturgess' Dex is such a drunken cad that you hope Emma will kiss him off once and for all. The conventions of stories such as these, however, require that moment when each sees the other as a soulmate -- though the question is whether that revelation will come on time or too late.
Hathaway's British accent occasionally skids into Scottish and isn't as strong as it was in Becoming Jane. Still, she makes Emma a strong, disciplined young woman: ever steady, no matter how her heart or spirit have been broken. She keeps moving forward, harboring feelings and fantasies but not overly worked up by the expectation that they'll be fulfilled. The problem is that either Sturgess is too believable as the churlish swain who uses the vulnerable Emma until the light dawns - or that the script simply never gives us reason to care that he finally figures things out.
In either case, One Day doesn't work as a romance. It's hard to get emotionally invested in a story when you spend the whole movie thinking, "Girl, you could do so much better."
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