When British author David Nicholls’ novel One Day was first published in the United States in 2010, Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum noted that the author owed “a plot finder’s fee to When Harry Met Sally…,” the much-loved 1989 film written by Nora Ephron. Schwarzbaum wasn’t wrong; like Ephron’s rom-com, One Day follows a man and woman over many years of a friendship that eventually turns into a romance, beginning when its main characters have just graduated from college on the cusp of their adult lives. As both stories skip along through time—11 years in Ephron’s film, and 19 in Nicholls’ novel—the characters muddle through their own failed relationships before finally seeing what is obvious to the audience: that they’re very much in love, and always have been.
However, One Day features several elements that drive it out of rom-com territory and into a realm populated by such novels as Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook (1996) or Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You (2012). One Day was an international bestseller and was adapted as a faithful 2011 feature film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. An equally faithful but much, much longer 14(!)-episode miniseries adaptation, starring This Is Going To Hurt’s Ambika Mod and The White Lotus’ Leo Woodall, premieres on Netflix on Feb. 8.
The series follows the structure of the novel quite closely. The first episode (and first chapter) take place on July 15, 1988, as Emma Morley, an anxious, idealistic middle-class bookworm from Yorkshire, and Dexter Mayhew, a handsome but staunchly apathetic, apolitical, and unambitious son of wealth, spend time in her bedroom following a lengthy make-out session. They both graduated from the University of Edinburgh the previous day, and they barely know each other, but as they chat, they find that they get along very well—and, of course, they’re mutually attracted to each other. They decide to keep in touch, and the next episode/chapter takes place one year later, on July 15, 1989, as Emma and Dexter correspond by letter; she’s about to give up her gig with a vaguely left-wing theater troupe to move to London and write plays; he’s vacationing in Rome but due to travel to London soon, with vague notions of becoming a photographer, or something. The next chapter skips to the next year, and so on, with big changes in both characters’ lives often occurring off-page.
She goes on to become a teacher, among other things, and he a TV presenter, among other things; their friendship similarly has its ups and downs, and each grapples with romantic problems, family issues, and/or career struggles. Both are chronically dissatisfied with their lives for much of the narrative, which makes for less-than-compelling reading, and the yearlong time-skips make readers (and viewers) spend time playing catch-up, which also has a limited appeal.
It would be less of a problem if both characters were equally engaging. She’s smart, creative, politically aware, and very funny; he’s none of these things, aside from the occasional witty line. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Dexter’s various plights as he drifts through life making one bad decision after another. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand why Emma is so enamored of him, aside from his stunning good looks; he’s superficially charming but largely an unpleasant jerk. Early on, for instance, he thinks the following about Emma: “She was pretty, but seemed annoyed by the fact.…Her chin was soft and a little plump, though perhaps that was just puppy-fat (or were ‘plump’ and ‘puppy-fat’ things you weren’t meant to say now? in the same way that you couldn’t tell her she has tremendous breasts, even if it was true, without her getting all offended).” A few years later, he and Emma go on vacation together to Greece, and he offers to have a “fling” with her: “Just while we’re away, no strings, no obligations, not a word to” his current girlfriend. This, to a woman who is obviously, if inexplicably, in love with him.
A good deal of this is preserved in the new miniseries, which was created and co-written by Wild Rose screenwriter Nicole Taylor. It’s almost excessively true to the source material, with much of the dialogue transferred over verbatim. Fortunately, the casting is quite good; Mod, as Emma, is incredibly charming throughout, and she convincingly portrays the character’s bravado and vulnerability. Woodall, as Dexter, is a great fit, as well; it’s a challenge to play someone so aggressively shallow without it feeling like a caricature, and he pulls it off well. Woodall and Mod also have a natural chemistry on-screen that may let viewers forgive some of the meandering series’ flaws, including several poorly integrated ’90s songs, which feel like afterthoughts; they seem to have been included for no other reason than to remind viewers of the time period. The biggest problem, though, is that whenever Emma’s off-screen, the miniseries suffers for it, and the story ultimately, and unwisely, spends more time with Dexter. Fortunately, a story like this, by its very nature, precludes the possibility of a sequel—so at least viewers won’t be forced to check in with Dexter year after year after year.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.