One Day is the rare wide-release romance that is not a comedy and is not totally a tearjerker. Focused on missed-chances, struggles, and regrets, it's a high-concept film that still reaches for naturalism and small truthful moments.
The Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig follows up her 2009 breakthrough An Education with a script adapted by David Nicholls from his own 2009 novel and an attractive pairing of Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (21).
Set primarily in London, with other European locales in play, the film opens with a brief bit of foreshadowing set in 2006, then flashes back to 1988 where Hathaway's mousy Emma has an awkward hook-up with more confident, handsome classmate-acquaintance Dex (Sturgis) on the night of her college graduation. It's July 15th and the conceit of the film is that all action happens on the date over the course of 20 years as we see Emma's and Dex's relationship evolve.
Unavoidable liberties are taken to make this concept work, with multiple crucial life events falling on this recurring date, but One Day doesn't overdo it, with other major shifts — deaths, weddings, a birth — taking place off screen, on other days.
Appropriately, the characters deepen as life experience accrues. Initially, Emma is lost in London, a would-be writer stuck managing a bad Mexican restaurant ("Welcome to the graveyard of ambition," she says by way of "training" a new employee) and settling with a worse boyfriend she doesn't love. Emma's long-term relationship with this hapless would-be comedian (Rafe Spall) feels painfully, at times comically, real. As the relationship grinds down, Emma's line of attack convinces: "I paid the mortgage. You just sat around farting and watching the bloody Wrath of Khan."
As Emma struggles, Dex's career in the entertainment industry takes off. Later, these trajectories cross, as she becomes a teacher and children's book author, and Dex's career and personal life takes a different turn.
One Day is astute and reasonably subtle in using cultural markers to establish the passage of time. When we meet the earnest Emma in 1988, she's a collegian wearing a "Nuclear Disarmament Now" T-shirt and playing Tracy Chapman on vinyl. Other pop-culture signposts as we move into the '90s include trip-hop antihero Tricky and his-and-hers film trilogies (Evil Dead vs. Kieslowski's "Three Colors"). And, inevitably, these cultural markers become less central as the film hits the 2000s and the characters confront their mid-30s.
It's a tribute to Hathaway's acting chops and physical versatility that she can believably play dumpy, plain, and beleaguered while just as easily transforming into a still recognizably human stunner. This is her most substantial role since her Oscar-nominated lead performance in 2008's Rachel Getting Married, and though One Day isn't as significant a film, it re-establishes her as a major actress. Similarly, if this follow-up to Scherfig's An Education falls a bit short of that standard, it still solidifies her as a filmmaker to watch.
It's to the film's credit that the side characters most likely to slip into negative caricature — including that hapless comic — are given rounded, generous moments. And if a perhaps unexpected final twist feels too facile and manipulative, the film's tonal mix of sadness and contentment is felt.
Viewers at the back-end of the film's roughly 20-40 age curve might identify with the regrets, reckoning, acceptance, and hard-won moments of happiness on display. Early twentysomethings at the front end — drifting into adulthood amid an uncertain-at-best economy — might find this ostensible romance a bit unsettling.
Opening Friday, August 19th