One Day (12A)

A romcom should improve on reality, not reduce it.

One Day (12A)
dir: Lone Scherfig

David Nicholls proved himself as a chronicler of unpromising romances in Starter for Ten, that charming tale of a girl, a guy and a university trivia contest, but still his confidants may have turned pale pistachio when he announced the premise for the story of One Day. A specific date on which a couple of star-crossed chums meet, drink and bicker, as a poor substitute for going to bed, for nearly 20 years? The potential for gooeyness or boredom was endless.

But Nicholls pulled it off: One Day is funny and sweet, but not that sweet. As 15 successive Julys tick by, Dexter and Emma's friendship - that unlikely upshot of a drunken 1988 post-graduation grope - waxes and wanes. She flounders, he forges a TV career. He goes off the rails, she becomes a teacher. There are long-term partners and amorous disasters, bad hair decisions and almost-snogs. But they keep getting older, and Nicholls's willingness to face that with grace and candour makes the novel. Waists thicken and hair relocates. Biological clocks tick ever louder. Because these two keep failing to walk off into the sunset, we are faced with the uncomfortable truth that no love story has a happy ending.

How do you embed such a scratchy fact into a romcom? Sue me for xenophobia, but a few more Brits might have helped. Lone Scherfig's last film, An Education, was an accurately unattractive representation of lower-middle-class London in the 1960s, but it's hard for any Danish director to capture the defensiveness of our humour, designed to offset the chippiness of a titchy nation out to prove itself bigger and better by fighting anyone who says otherwise. (Why is it called a Napoleon complex? We had it first.)

These days, we don't have much of a navy but we still come out, guns blazing self-deprecation, when our amour propre is threatened. Dexter, the handsome, anti-intellectual dipsomaniac public school boy who fights his feelings for bookish, sarcastic Emma because he knows, deep down, they will stymie his long-held ambition to sleep with two women at the same time, is never so likeable as when trying to sandpaper his messes with abrasive humour. English-born pretty boy Jim Sturgess is credible as smart-arsed rather than smart, the kind of kid who, if he falls, may be unable to stumble to his feet again. But Anne Hathaway is all wrong, and not just because her accent tours Britain, stopping off everywhere except Emma's Yorkshire. She's not an ugly duckling. Maybe they see her that way back home, but in that case America must have different swans.

Who should have been cast? Anna Friel is larky enough but insufficiently intellectual, and Kate Winslet, who once would have been perfect, is living proof that American gloss is non-dissoluble. Still, I don't believe Hathaway, with her picket-fence teeth, as an insecure swot growing into her prettiness, nor as a socially mobile product of the merit-based education policies that Maggie Thatcher was dismantling as this story opens. The film zooms in on Dexter's family (Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott make excellent parents) and ignores Emma's, probably because working-class Leeds lacks scenic mansions, and besides, they'd have shown up their daughter's accent. But that's a pity, because Nicholls gives a keen sense of Dexter and Emma's futures as equally scary despite their differing backgrounds. That, rather than immaculate dentistry, is progress.

Still, if the bigger picture is rather blurred, One Day is great on detail. Dexter's 1990s TV presenter look, all Simon Le Bon fringe and mockney accent, is queasily convincing, and Emma's second date with inept, devoted Ian (Rafe Spall) rounds off with Tia Maria. In brandy balloons. Truly, they were terrible times.

The biggest problem is structural. A film forced to avoid vital moments because it can only show us a given day each year engenders outrage. Nicholls's screenplay struggles hard against this, introducing clinches and rearranging background furniture, but it also wants, not unreasonably, to stay faithful to the novel. It's a fair reflection of life to miss out some of the best bits - the equivalent of being drunk or inattentive at exactly the wrong moment - but a romcom is supposed to improve on life and this one, as Emma might say, could try harder.