One Day review: Just read the book
Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall star in the second adaptation of David Nicholls's best-selling book.
Adapting one of the UK's best-selling novels for the screen, which is also a love story, and one that spans 20 years, is not for the faint of heart. The hundreds of thousands of fans of David Nicholls's commercial smash hit One Day are fiercely protective of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew's relationship, which begins on 15th July, 1988, when they graduate from Edinburgh University, also known as St Swithin's Day, as Dexter points out – traditional folklore dictates that if it rains on 15th July, it will last for 40 days and 40 nights, and if it doesn't, "t'will rain no more".
From there, we follow them on that single day across the next two decades, when it often pours, metaphorically speaking, but there's also the unexpected beauty that arrives on the currents of life's ebbs and flows.
It's a nifty device – not only does it heighten the romance of Dex and Em's dynamic, as Nicholls previously told The Independent, it symbolises "our desire and inability to predict the future" – which sits at the heart of One Day, in particular its most shocking moment, which critics have been expressly forbidden from talking about in pre-release coverage.
But if you know, you know.
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But despite the immense challenge of taking on this book, all of the early signs were positive. Nicholls was on board as an executive producer, a series (14 parts!) rather than another film (which largely went down like a lead balloon, partly due to Anne Hathaway's funky attempt at a Yorkshire accent) would give the story more room to breathe, and the casting also created a buzz.
Ambika Mod (Emma) was devastatingly brilliant as junior doctor Shruti in Adam Kay's This Is Going to Hurt, and Leo Woodall (Dexter) instantly gained a legion of adoring fans as cheeky chappy Essex lad Jack in Mike White's deliciously dangerous The White Lotus.
But despite the very best efforts from all involved, you'd have a much better time simply reading the book.
The initial encounter between the pair when they first lock eyes while encased within the throng of sweaty student revellers, before graduating to an official introduction, should be brimming with intensity and anticipation. When they go home together, spending the night in Emma's bed – but without actually having sex, a crucial characteristic of every will-they-won't-they – the intangible, cosmic force that exists between two people who are destined to be together just wasn't palpable.
That is, of course, a matter of personal opinion, as all comment is. Some viewers may find themselves instantly head over heels for this version of Dex and Em. But it felt as though I was being told to feel that way, rather than feeling it myself.
For all of their talents, which were on full display in the aforementioned titles, Mod and Woodall didn't quite hit the mark either.
Dexter is supposed to have an abundance of charm – good looks alone are not why women fall into his bed with so much as a glance, or how he falls into TV presenting. But Woodall's performance is strangely flat and in the moments when the character is supposed to be at his most captivating, his delivery lacks that irresistible swagger.
Emma often uses comedy as a weapon to deflect from her insecurities, certainly in her younger years, or to diffuse awkwardness, but Mod delivers much of her dialogue with a ringing intensity that sucks the humour right out of proceedings and in turn, the character loses her appeal – so much so that there are several moments when you wonder how she has any friends, or why Dexter would be drawn to her at all, which is a key flaw in this production.
If you lose that, it all falls apart.
There are also highly irritating characters scattered liberally throughout the drama, who were bearable in the novel (perhaps that's a reflection of how I originally read them), but are a headache here. Ian, who Emma first meets while working at a Mexican restaurant, is the biggest example of that.
He's an aspiring comedian who has no flair for comedy whatsoever, which was somewhat endearing in the book, but this iteration is utterly hateful. And while it's possible to understand the manner in which their relationship unfolds in the source material, even if you don't support it, all of that is undercut here by how entirely unbearable he is and as such, it translates as bad writing.
There's also the structure itself, which is the novel's only real flaw. With the narrative spanning 20 years, several key periods in Dexter and Emma's lives unfold off-script (we really would be here for 20 years if it didn't), but as a result, it can be frustrating not being present for those occasions, and discombobulating as you mentally scramble to get to grips with where they are at a particular moment.
That vast timeframe was always going to pose another problem: how do you age-up the characters?
The answer: not very effectively. Dexter and Emma appear very much the same in their late thirties as they did in their youth, and no amount of grouching from the former about succumbing to middle-age spread will convince you otherwise. But as I said, that was always going to be a challenge, and who on earth has the time to go down the Boyhood route?
But One Day does improve slightly in its final few episodes, in part due to the bedding in of Dex and Em's relationship, which is at its most satisfying and believable in their latter years together. And even those who have read the book and/or watched the film will still find themselves moved by the aforementioned staggering development (you'd have to have a heart of stone not to), and possibly still harbour some resentment towards Nicholls.
For those who are new to Dex and Em, a younger crowd perhaps, there will doubtlessly be some who question why such an event has to occur, and for whom it sours the viewing experience, but it plays a key role in Dexter's character development, and ties into many of the story's core themes.
That is also arguably the most difficult part of this tale to get right, but the writing and performances, then at their most stripped back, are at their strongest, and it's where Woodall, in particular, does his best work.
But ultimately, Netflix's One Day lacks the charm of Nicholls's One Day. Despite chunks of dialogue being lifted from the source material, the author's voice is lost and with it, its brilliance. The book also has a moreish quality, but the episodes, which are around the 36-minute mark at most and 25 minutes minimum, can feel double in length. And there is also an over-reliance on needle drops, with music used to drum up emotion or create atmosphere where the writing and performances fail to do so.
There will be plenty of viewers who enjoy this – as I said, this is just one opinion, but if you want to immerse yourself in the story of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, just read the book.