Saturday, August 20, 2011

Twenty Days in the Life: ONE DAY

You pick your friends, or so the saying goes, but that’s not entirely true, is it? Circumstance, coincidence and closeness play a role in friendship as well so that it’s quite possible you can look back upon a time in your life and discover that you were drawn into a friendship that you didn’t value until that person was already gone. Such is the story of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), two acquaintances who become sort-of-friends only to circle around each other, flitting in and out of the other’s life, for the better part of twenty years, flirting, toying, yearning all the while to become more than friends.

We first encounter the two of them thrown together on the night of their graduation from Edinburgh University in 1988. They’re in a group of drunken revelers who stumble through town, but slowly, two by two, the graduates peel off from the main group. Emma and Dexter end up spending time together and then parting ways. Through the rest of One Day, we will check in on these two characters every July 15th for two decades. Sometimes they are together. Other times, the day passes without them even thinking of one another. This is ostensibly a romance, presented with a shameless gimmick, but it’s presented in such a low-key, casually unimportant way that the artifice of it all is hidden beneath the dullness.

By giving us only one day per year, the little snippets of passing time accumulate slowly into a big picture, but there’s also a lot of exposition that must be shoved into what little time we have to spend with these people each year. Emma struggles in her twenties, but then finds some professional success. Dexter finds near-immediate professional success, but he’s just as lost as Emma in his twenties, the sense of floundering aimlessly only growing as he finds early success slipping away. There are two full human lives on display for us to watch but we get only glimpses, leaving the impression that the better story is often unfolding on the days we are not privy to.

I found myself wondering if the film would be better, more powerful and emotional, if we got to see more of these characters. Hathaway and Sturgess do fine, intimately textured work, but there’s a sense of the whole production struggling under the weight (or rather, lack thereof) of so much thinness. I got a sense that the actors know more about who these characters are then the film allows them to express. Even supporting characters like Dexter’s mother, played by the reliable Patricia Clarkson, seem to fade away, taking potential for deepening the film’s texture with them. Adapted by David Nicholls from his own bestselling novel, unread by me, this is a prime example of a concept that I’d imagine could work better with the nuance and detail capable in text. Filmed, there’s far too much telling instead of showing.

As it plods forward, the plot of One Day seems to stretch thinner and thinner. Director Lone Scherfig, of the well-acted and Oscar-nominated An Education from a couple of years ago, coaches some decent acting but has a rather perfunctory visual style here and a flatness of pace that works to dull the emotions. The years stamp onto the screen with each passing day, allowing me all too much time to contemplate just how much longer I’d be sitting in the theater, struggling to get on the film’s wavelength. Late in the film, when one character suddenly dies, I found myself profoundly unmoved. But then, in the final stretch, the plot folds over upon itself and gains some shallow depth that is faintly effective and affecting. By then, though, it was too little too late.

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