By Dave Wilson | August 19, 2011
Writer: David Nicholls
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Tom Mison, Jodie Whitaker, Rafe Spall, Patricia Clarkson
The first thing you need to know is that One Day bears almost no resemblance to the trite, generic romantic comedy that the studio is marketing in those little 30 second TV spots. Far from being formulaic or overly familiar, One Day is often a surprisingly effective examination of a friendship between a man and a woman. Directed by Lone Scherfig, who gave us 2009’s An Education and its brilliant newcomer, Carey Mulligan, One Day shares some of the same wit and sensibility, despite lacking a script by Nick Hornby.
One Day follows the twenty-year friendship of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess). Emma is plucky, honest, dependable, and eccentric. She’s the downtrodden intellectual in thrift store clothes. She can be wise and brutally direct, which would serve her well as the writer she wants to be. Unfortunately, she lacks the courage, like many of us do, to even voice her ambitions. Dexter, on the other hand, is well to do, devastatingly handsome, and completely full of himself. He floats from one girl to another, jets around the world, never doubtful that his career in the London television scene will fall right into his lap. He likes a drink and a laugh, a warm body in his bed, and seems to only come alive when he’s the center of attention. In other words, Emma and Dex are so totally mismatched that they can’t even take each other seriously as potential partners. Instead, they fall easily and naturally into one of those deep, lifelong, inexplicable friendships that seem to pick up where it left off year after year, despite the drastically different paths their lives take.
The film opens on July 15, 1988 on the night of their graduation from the University of Edinburgh. When their mutual friends pair off, Emma and Dex fall into a drunken flirtation of their own and end up in bed together–but no, not in the way you think. A little awkwardness leads to second thoughts, and the moment slips away. “I’m not very good at this sort of thing,” Emma confesses, suggesting that just be friends instead. As they drift off to sleep, Emma asks Dex if he’ll spend some time with her the next day. And though he wouldn’t say it or mean it or follow through with any other girl, he says yes.
From here, the day these two first connect, we leap from year to year, dropping in only on Emma and Dex to see where they are (and who they are) on each consecutive July 15 for the next twenty years. What we really see, rather than a paint by numbers romance, is an attempt to capture a certain kind of friendship, to track the separate paths of two people who may or may not be meant for each other, but who clearly balance each other in some essential way and help each other to grow.
Perhaps the real gift, thank God, is that we’re not in store for twenty different “reunion” scenes along the lines of something like, Same Time Next Year (1978). In fact, there are many years in which Emma and Dexter’s paths don’t cross at all–other than by phone or letter or in the “negative space” of their separation while important choices are made. He’s off in Paris, slowing down just long enough to hear some important news from his mother, for instance, and she’s moving into her first place in London–just a crappy bedsit in a building that smells like “onions and disappointment.” At times, the film has an artful way of suggesting so much by snipping away the intervening year, so that the real meaning we make is within the ellipsis itself. Emma is full of hope as she talks to Dexter on the phone and unpacks her books in that crappy apartment. Flash ahead one year and she’s a dispirited waitress in a third-rate London Tex-Mex dive droning on about the menu. Snip away some more, and it’s July 15 a year later, and she’s still there, only now, she’s management material. When this film works, it does a nice job of echoing those lines John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The first third of the film does a wonderful job of offering genuine glimpses of this friendship as it first takes root. There is a real charm and wit to the banter and on-again, off-again sexual tension as we get to know Emma and Dex. All of those little ways in which they prop each other up or knock each other down a peg feel surprisingly authentic and well-observed, especially if you’ve ever had a friend like this, man or woman, who is always there, no matter where you are at a given point in your life.
Unfortunately, the awkward “march of time” gimmick causes a number of problems that the film has a difficult time overcoming. Since we are only present on the same day each year, the film has to resort to shorthand and exaggeration, which sometimes borders on the melodramatic. When Dexter loses his way as a shallow, mawkish television host with a drinking problem we see him in his condo—literally, a shadowy, sterile, stainless steel kitchen with no personal effects whatsoever except for the large modern portrait of himself looming in the background–all of which is a little on the nose. Think about it. We have to distill all of these major life changes and rites of passage into fragmented, sometimes portentous little glimpses. So there is the constant burden of exposition and the ongoing feeling that people turn up suspiciously in each other’s lives to drop a bombshell, deliver important news, or simply psychoanalyze each other in smart, pithy ways. There is a scene towards the end between Dexter and Emma’s boyfriend Ian that might as well have been written on the wall in capital letters with a big black Sharpie.
Another of the film’s weaknesses is the character of Dexter, himself, who really is such an insufferable, egotistical cad that many may just throw up their hands in exasperation. I really fault the script by David Nicholls for this, rather than actor Jim Sturgess, who otherwise does a fine job of suggesting the heart below the surface. Nevertheless, around the midpoint, the film goes off track for a good stretch while Dex falls into a noisy, pathetic career as the agonizingly tasteless host of a bad late night dance program. We have to exercise a considerable amount of patience while Dexter drinks and carouses and gravitates from club to club, completely in love with himself, yet–hit it on the head!–woefully insecure and without an ounce of self-knowledge. Who cares? You might think. Why does he deserve Emma’s friendship at all?
Yet, remarkably, the film recovers from many of these weaknesses due in large part to Anne Hathaway’s really solid and heartfelt performance. There is so much truth and spirit and self-effacing humor to the way she approaches each moment, from the everyday to the bracing events and setbacks that mark any life. In the end, you feel that she’s lived those years, and despite the “one day” gimmick, this is gradual, natural, invisible growth, not the sort of awkward trick with wigs and makeup she was burdened with in Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Hathaway’s performance is complemented by some outstanding work by the supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson is devastatingly honest as Dexter’s ailing mother who has the job of telling her son that he simply hasn’t turned out to be a very nice person. Also notable is Rafe Spall, son of Mike Leigh regular, Timothy Spall, as Emma’s likeable, live-in boyfriend, Ian, a schlubby, aspiring comic who does an amazing job of suggesting the out and out aggression underlying the one-liners and self-deprecation.
In the end, One Day plays like two films at war with each other. On the one hand, we have so many finely observed moments of a certain kind of friendship that will feel shockingly true and familiar to many. And then there are the big ideas and rites of passage–the illnesses and marriages and break-ups and deaths–that are hit so hard and so bluntly, because we lose so much of the glue and continuity between these events. One Day is not a great film, but there is lot to recommend–even to my wife, who simply can’t stand Anne Hathaway, with the exception of her work in Rachel Getting Married (2008). Personally, I think this might be the film that changes her mind. Finally, did I care about these people? Yes. And did I recognize certain moments that I have experienced? Yes, once again.