More than a tale of two people taking too long to realize they should be in a romantic relationship, Lone Scherfig’s One Day mostly succeeds as a story about the ups and downs of a close friendship over the course of twenty years. I imagine most people have had this kind of relationship, where two people grow closer, grow apart, and change drastically over the, but One Day does a solid job of hitting the emotions associated with that experience. But the film can’t manage the actual love story as leads Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess never find the intimate chemistry that’s so crucial to the film.
One Day chronicles the lives of Dexter (Sturgess) and Emma (Hathaway) over the course of twenty years by focusing on one day every year: July 15th. On July 15, 1986, the two have just graduated from college and while they’ve briefly met before, this time they go back to Emma’s apartment (sorry, “flat”; the movie takes place in England) but never get to the sex. However, this is where their friendship truly begins and over the course of the film we see how their paths diverge, the bizarre twists and turns of fate and how a life can progress, regress, or stagnate.
It’s an intriguing narrative device because it gets to jump ahead one year (sometimes it’s really more as Scherfig spends only a few seconds in a given year before moving on to the next one) and yet the audience doesn’t feel cheated out of story or anything we missed from July 16th to July 14th the following year. This jump periodically has to use the crutch of exposition, but Scherfig does a tremendous job by changing the setting, the costumes, the hair and make-up of her actors, and bringing out every little detail possible to show the passage of time.
The movie thankfully doesn’t pile on notions of “true love” or even destiny. Rather, it shows how two people may love each other but it may never come for both at just the right time. People change and you can’t schedule love to blossom from one grand gesture or even longevity. There are years where Dexter and Emma are out of each other’s lives, but neither is entirely gone from the other’s thoughts. It’s a toss-up to what you’ll find more interesting: the way the characters change over the years or how their relationship develops.
However, David Nicholls script (adapted from his own novel) and Scherfig’s direction are doing the heavy lifting. I was worried that Hathaway’s fake British accent would prove to be a distraction, but she sold it and more importantly, she made Emma a character worth caring about so I stopped paying attention to the accent altogether. But this is a two-character story, and sadly Emma isn’t a true co-lead. The movie really belongs to Dexter because we see more of his personal life and more of the story is through his perspective. That’s a problem because Jim Sturgess is a completely uninteresting actor. I’ve seen him lead Across the Universe, 21, The Way Back, and now One Day and I keep coming to the same question: “Why?” He’s not the worst actor on the planet, but he strikes me as the poor man’s Andrew Garfield. There’s never any passion to his performances. He can cry and yell but there’s very little charisma to what he does. His performance in the first half of One Day consists almost entirely of grinning and smirking. Sturgess isn’t up to the role and the vital chemistry between Dexter and Emma never truly comes to fruition.
There’s the added problem that One Day doesn’t know how to end. There’s a predictable emotional sledgehammer in the last half-hour and watching the characters cope with its aftermath becomes tedious as Nicholls and Scherfig can’t seem to find a proper ending. The movie seems like it’s about to wrap up three different times and each ending comes to a different thematic conclusion. The movie ultimately comes to the best conclusion which highlights how these characters changed, and how in 1986 they have no idea how drastic those changes will be. It got me a little choked up as I thought back on some of my old friendships because while people will change, it’s an uplifting thought that perhaps there’s a core connection time cannot break.