Working class Emma (Anne Hathaway) and wealthy Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet on the night of their college graduation – July 15, 1988. Every year for the next 20 years on that date, we see how the couple are faring, as their friendship waxes and wanes.
One Day is a romance that’s not quite funny enough to be dubbed a rom-com. The tone is light, but at the same time sober; here sadness creeps around the edges of the frame like an uninvited guest waiting to deliver bad news.
This English production from Danish director Lone Scherfig, who made An Education, adopts a similar dour mood. As in that box office hit, Scherfig relies on the charisma and spark of her leads to lighten a story sick with sentimentality and burdened by a sense of purpose that its drama cannot quite deliver. Here it’s Anne Hathaway, improbably cast as a Yorkshire lass and doing well with it (even if she has to wear oversized spectacles to 'hide’ her good looks); her love interest is the Englishman Jim Sturgess, who affects a Hugh Grant, 'loveable bastard' persona, without the cuddly bits.
In its narrative contours, One Day is in the best tradition of the literary romance and the movie love story; that is, it’s an inarguably melancholy story about chances not taken, or rather opportunities seized too late. It’s a story about a 20-year friendship. The love here is platonic, but the yearnings are romantic. It’s one of the most ancient of all romantic plots: Is your best friend the best choice for a lover? Or does sex soil the purity of friendship? Actually, it’s a premise that always seemed at worst, a bit immature and at best, the chance to explore the confusions of growing adulthood. I mean, how many marriages have you heard described as a partnership between best friends? The best movie romances, like Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally, see the irony in this story conceit; they’re about self-exploration, not some adolescent idealism about the 'perfect partner’.
Based on a popular novel by David Nicholls (who here writes the screenplay), the movie uses an interesting device derived from the novel (which I haven’t read) where we 'drop in’ on the main characters, on the same day, the 15th of July, every so often for 20 years.
The story starts in 1988 when Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) have just earned degrees in Edinburgh. She’s a nice girl, a little awkward, definitely bright and positively unsure of herself, with ambitions to be a writer. He’s handsome, a player, not especially bright and unlike Em, comes with an upper-middleclass pedigree.
The night they graduate they hook up, though through a bit of bad timing they never do get to make love. In the morning they part, vowing to remain pals. Which they do despite Em’s downward mobility and Dexter’s growing career as the kind of TV 'personality’ most people just love to hate. He is what earlier generations would describe as a bit of cad and a skirt chaser, but today we might call a tosser and sexual predator out for all he can get, between endless nights and nuclear capability hangovers.
Emma’s life maybe on the slow track by comparison but it has depth; over time she achieves her ambitions – school teaching and later, writing fiction. She even has a lengthy romance with an unfunny comedian called Ian (Rafe Spall) who, in the movie’s best gag, is so cluelessly mirthless it’s hilarious. Meanwhile, Dex makes one poor life choice after another, aided and abetted by addictions to ego, alcohol, drugs and 'fame’ (of the tabloid weekly kind.) Apparently the movie softens Dexter a bit. Emma seems more interesting, but it’s his movie (and by implication his tragedy).
Distilled to unflattering essentials, One Day is the story of a louse redeemed by the love of a good woman"¦ too late. I’ve read that the novel has a lot of wit and depth and insight, but the movie seems a collection of romantic riffs all centering on a male character who seems to specialise in his own unique brand of narcissistic self-delight which switches to self-pity whenever anything bad happens (and that’s often in this movie). There are at least one half-dozen scenes where people tell him he’s not nice. The only thing that gives him depth is his choice of best friend, Em, who in the scheme of the film seems somewhat too nice, too pure. Where’s her cruelty, her selfishness? (Her scenes with Ian are meant to shine up her 'flaws’, but again, you get the feeling the guy had it coming.) The film ends on an old romantic stand-by: 'I’m a much better person because of you." There’s a deep truth in that statement, when encountered in life, but in One Day it plays well, if a little cheap, because we never really feel it.
Incidentally, the one day Em and Dex always meet July 15, happens to be St. Swithin’s Day. It’s not mentioned in the movie, and I’m not sure of the details, but I understand there’s an abiding romantic folklore in England about swearing love forever on that day, an idea that’s got a secure place in Brit pop culture. (Billy Bragg wrote one of his best songs about it.) One Day sounds sad and poignant in print, and according to its fans, it’s a profoundly moving book. Still, the movie is strangely remote, and straining for tears.