It’s quite telling that the film One Day is based on a romantic novel by David Nicholls and even more telling that Nicholls adapted it himself. Even as a film, One Dayfeels like something one would read at the beach; the kind of empty junk food that is satisfying, yet doesn’t take away from the scenery. This look at two life long friends with a strong attraction to each other over the years even has moments that feel like chapter breaks. There is nothing particularly bad about something like that, though, especially at the tail end of a summer that was largely free of any sort of romantic films. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has crafted a film that is perfectly agreeable for mulitplex attending genre fans that are starved for any sort of love story that doesn’t involve robots or teenagers, but it has a near fatal flaw that almost torpedoes the film.
One Day is the story of Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) and how they impact each other’s lives. After nearly hooking up on their university graduation day in 1988 London, they remain lifelong friends whose lives take different turns personally and professionally. Emma wants to be a poet, but ends up waiting tables in a sub-par Mexican restaurant before becoming a teacher and dating a budding stand-up comedian (Rafe Spall). Dexter comes from old money and never really has to work very hard to get ahead in life. He starts as a teacher in Paris before becoming the host of a God awful Top of the Pops style television show that turns him into an alcoholic party boy. The friends drift in and out of various social circles, but the film specifically focuses on the one day a year they try to always spend together: July 15th, their graduation day, better known as St. Swithin’s Day.
The film is anchored and saved by two really great lead performances from Hathaway and Sturgess. Hathaway is superb as a woman who knows she is settling for the bare minimum in life at almost every turn and it is genuinely cathartic to watch her finally get her act together and succeed at various points. The talk of her accent in the film being poor is pure rubbish and it means nothing in the greater context of the character she is playing, anyway. If there is one drawback to her character, it is that Emma’s backstory is nonexistant whereas the backstory for Dexter could fill a book in itself. Sturgess does have the flashier role and the film refreshingly never really casts Dexter in an altogether flattering light. Sturgess plays cocky and arrogant extremely well, but he also showcases a distinct sense of vulnerability that makes the character understood even when the audience can’t fully sympathize with him. Patricia Clarkson also shows up in a small, but well acted turn as Dexter’s mother and her scenes with Sturgess are some of the best in the film.
On a structural level the film works quite nicely, up until the eventual point in the film where the two friends have to start showing a romantic interest in each other. In a book one can easily explain the passage of time by telling the reader something and not showing it. As the years in the lives of Dexter and Emma pass, less and less is said about what happens in the one year between each day they spend together. At times it seems like Nicholls wanted to be so faithful to his book that he just assumes it is all filmable as is without explanation. On screen a lot of things change that are never really explained or shown, which makes the film feel like it is simply racing to get to the end. Which leads to the near fatal flaw of the film which I can’t really go into much detail about without spoiling the film.
As the film nears its conclusion it remains entertaining thanks to Hathaway and Sturgess, but there is a major plot twist that throws the entire structure out of sync. For all the hurrying the film feels like it is doing to get to the end, it manages to slow down to a crawl by doubling back on itself to explain something that should have been told from the start of the film for it to have any real impact. It is incredibly frustrating and it nearly sucks all the life out of the film just when it should be getting to the best part. The end of the film might be maddening, but it is still passable fluff thanks to the eagerness of Sturgess and Hathaway to put the film on their backs and simply run with it.
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Anne Hathaway
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Top image: A scene from One Day. Courtesy Alliance Films.