The worries about this adaptation of David Nicholls’ much-loved and likeable 2009 novel were obvious when it was first announced. Could Anne Hathaway pull off the character of a Northern lass (‘We spent all our summers in a caravan in Whitby’), first as an Edinburgh student and later a graduate working in a taco joint? Would Danish director Lone Scherfig be sensitive to the book’s subtle but playful period stylings? Would the film’s makers resist the temptation to tip what was already a slightly gimmicky and cloying story into the territory of full-on romantic sap? And how could one film do justice to 23 eventful years in the lives of confident public-school boy Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and earthy, less assured Emma (Hathaway) – two opposites whom the novel visits once a year on the same date they first have a romantic encounter in 1988 as students?
The result is a compromise – but not a disastrous one. Nicholls’ script follows his novel closely as a ‘greatest hits’ spin on the book, rather than taking it anywhere new. Dexter follows a path of success, hubris and self-destruction, followed by rehabilitation, while Emma takes equally as long to discover what she wants from life and a friendship with Dexter, but without the accompanying obnoxiousness.
Inevitably, the story feels filleted, although thankfully it gains substance later on. There are strong comic turns from Rafe Spall as Emma’s boyfriend and Romola Garai as Dexter’s joyless wife, while Scherfig avoids laying on the period tics too thickly even if she doesn’t display huge insight into these years. Troublingly, Hathaway’s accent is too wayward to convince, but there’s a lightness to her acting that helps paper over the cracks. Sturgess’s performance emerges as more layered, perhaps because the book, too, was always less about the two of them and more about the world waiting for Dexter to grow up.
The film might make the book look less interesting than it is, but it still has an undeniable emotional wallop by its close.