They say that the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young. “One Day” is all about that need, and how two people (subconsciously and otherwise) hold on to that for 23 long years.
Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) are college friends who almost sleep together on graduation day at a college in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1988. They instead decide to be best friends, and to make that day — July 15 — their personal anniversary date. For the next two decades and three years, Emma and Dexter sometimes meet up on their anniversary and sometimes don’t, and the film slides from one July 15 to another, stringing vignettes of Emma and Dexter’s lives like differing beads on a single necklace.
Does it work? That’s kind of hard to say. You see, Emma and Dexter are so brilliantly attractive and obviously attracted to each other that this anniversary thing feels uncomfortably gimmicky. I mean, what kind of guy goes to bed with Anne Hathaway, then calls it quits and decides to be friends instead? Psychoanalysis aside, I can give it to you in one word: knucklehead. It’s enough to make you want to want to give up on the Emma-Dexter couple altogether and wish Emma would take up with someone else immediately.
On the other hand, the very awkwardness of the pair is what charges the story with so much charm. It’s impossible not to care what happens to them, or wonder what’s taking them so darn long to realize they’re made for each other.
The director is Denmark’s Lone Scherfig, famed for her Dogme 95 project “Italian for Beginners” (2000) and more recently the sleeper hit “An Education” in 2009. Scherfig’s works display a distinct Scandinavian prudence and economy. You sense a highly aesthetic design scheme, as streamlined and gorgeously precise as Danish architecture. Even her name sounds like some expensive whisky, adorning the shelf of a Copenhagen bar.
Which is why “One Day” may elicit the “Huh?” response. The story is a bit of a mess. It sprawls out over an unconvincing time-space continuum. The dialogue promises to get interesting and then doesn’t. It seems that a love story spanning 23 years should be dense and Dickensian but Scherfig is content to show the passing of time with clothes and music and the weird, blunt haircuts women used to sport back in the tail end of the 20th century. Emma has one when she hooks up with Dexter; and the story (based on a novel by David Nicholls, who also wrote the screenplay) draws her as a bespectacled, brainy frump. But superficial trappings cannot mar the sheer, sunny beauty of Hathaway’s face, and when she flashes that smile of hers, one feels life is truly worth living.
On another level, “One Day” is intriguing as a look at how two young people deal with ambitions and jobs, balance responsibilities and dreams, mature into adults and parents. They must also face middle age and the emotional baggage that comes with it, all the while casting a wistful glance back to a time and a place when they were oh so young.
Out of college, Dexter becomes a TV presenter who’s wildly popular with his audience before becoming totally annoying. Success eludes aspiring-writer Emma; she waitresses at a Mexican restaurant in London, honing her skills of dry witticisms and quick rejoinders on her customers.
July 15 comes and goes. One time Dexter makes a date to see Emma and arrives unforgivably late. (“I got waylaid!” he says, to explain a quick tryst with a hot French girl.) Another time we see Dexter and Emma fingering brand new mobile phones, marveling at how the device allows them to “keep in touch.”
Readers of the book will know that a tragic sense of loss and missed opportunities are the twin pillars of “One Day,” but Scherfig is careful not to turn up the dials on negative emotions. Rather than go for poignancy, she pushes cynicism to the fore and replaces sadness with the weary realization of how youth goes by like a split-second dream, and adults are often ill-equipped to fend off the threats of physical and spiritual decay.
Of the two, Emma is written as the more authentic human being, better able to cope with growing older, while it takes a whole lot of time and humbling incidents for Dexter to part with his colossal ego. Trite as it seems, the main message we take away here may be that everything slips away so fast, including the grip on the hand of a loved one.