Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway star as Dexter and Emma in "One Day." (Giles Keyte / Focus Features )
"One Day" seemed so promising given its pedigree — lovely and sensitive actors Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess at the forefront; Lone Scherfig, a master of intimacy in the director's chair; and David Nicholls adapting his own bestselling romance novel. But as so often happens with love, what you hope for is not even close to what you get, and in this case we are left with a heartbreaking disappointment of a film.
It starts off in Edinburgh, Scotland, one day in 1988, July 15 to be exact, when Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) meet on graduation day, end up in bed, yet very much off on the wrong foot. He's more upper crust, really out of her league. She's frumpy but smart and sardonic enough to keep him intrigued, if not attracted.
True romance isn't in the cards on that day, but we have time. The film, as the book did before it, covers a 20-year span, dropping in on them each year on the same July day.
The narrative is driven by modern themes. Em and Dex have varying degrees of success and failure on the personal and career fronts, which seem to be the main topic of conversation when they meet up each year, usually in and around London, where much of the film takes place. She busses tables at a Mexican restaurant and tries to write when she's not at work. He's a rising reality-TV star on a downward spiral, sped along by healthy doses of cocaine and the fickle nature of fame.
He has a string of young lovelies, while she struggles with relationships. Ian, a stand-up comic wannabe, turns up as her rock for a while (a smart turn by Rafe Spall). Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott are mostly underemployed as Dex's parents, though there are some nice moments between Stott and Sturgess toward the end.
If Dex and Em are in an extended pickle of whether to be or not to be a couple, it's nothing compared with the problems the actors are facing. In the film, there is a lot of tempting and resisting and a few lingering kisses, beautifully shot by director of photography Benoit Delhomme, but the passion is missing. If anything, the awkwardness that rightfully infuses their first encounter never leaves.
It's a very British production, but the accent never sits well with Hathaway. More problematic, she never comes close to the sort of textured portrait she brought to "Rachel Getting Married." Sturgess, excellent holding together the very loosely constructed "Across the Universe," is no better off. As Dex, he's to be a lovable rogue, but charm fails him here.
This sort of story should have been a slam-dunk for Scherfig. The Danish director has been close to a sure thing since U.S. audiences began discovering her in 2002 with her first English-language film, "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself," a sweet comedy about suicide and family ties. But it was 2009's Oscar-nominated "An Education" that cemented her as a truly significant cinematic voice.
In the coming-of-age story that launched Carey Mulligan's career, Scherfig allowed us to creep inside a life in transition. She made you feel an actual witness to those deliciously dangerous liaisons. In "One Day," with the world again turning on the axis of a single relationship, the characters and the story slip away from her.
Nicholls' novel was a sensation in part due to the clever way it revealed Dex and Em — fragments that eventually came together to create a full-bodied exploration of what goes right and wrong with the people we love. This is not the first time he's tackled adapting for the screen. "Starter for 10," his earlier go at British class issues, school and love in 2006 turned out to be an enjoyable entertainment with James McAvoy its winning lead (though "The Last King of Scotland" would be that year's game-changer for the actor).
But in nipping and tucking, Nicholls loses too much of the context necessary if we're to fall in love with Dex and Em and the idea that they really should be together. And why do we show up for romantic movies, if not to pull for an ever after, happily or otherwise? Dialogue that played on page turns tedious on screen, and there is an awful lot of it.
Back for a moment to Delhomme ("The Scent of Green Papaya," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"). The French cinematographer's eye for places and people is so consistently stylish and spot-on that even films that otherwise fall short are worth seeing if he shot them. When the tedium overtakes "One Day," pass the time looking at how skillfully he moves in to set the mood and frame the moment.
Still, it's a puzzle why so many talented folks were so far off the mark — hopefully it will only be for "One Day."