The day in One Day is July 15th – that's when Emma and Dexter, on their college graduation back in 1988, tumble into bed together but venture no further than awkward groping and the tentative pledge that, "Maybe we should just be friends." From there, the date doubles as a premise: For the next 20 years, always on that same St. Swithin's Day, the narrative peeks in on the twosome, examining the state of that pledge along with their evolving lives. The result is a romcom with ambition, keen to actually develop the characters and to mix a few tears with the laughs. Well, the effort is admirable, the movie not so much, and yet, contrary to most pictures, it does improve towards the end. At least a little.
The source material is screenwriter David Nicholls' popular novel, although anyone who remembers Same Time, Next Year will know that the basic conceit, this rite of annual return, has been tested before. Here, the couple-in-progress are Brits, played by Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, who begin as a study in contrasts. Dexter is rich, Emma isn't. He's an easy-going, fun-loving, babe magnet – no stretch for Sturgess there. She's a bit mousey, up tight, lacking in self-esteem but flashing the caustic wit of the working-class heroine – that's a considerable stretch for Hathaway who, in hopes of de-prettifying for the occasion, sports a pair of spectacles and a North England accent. The former stays put; the latter, alas, is all hither and gone.
In her most celebrated film, An Education, director Lone Scherfig steered admirably clear of cliché and conventional wisdom. Not so in these early frames, where her stars settle into that most tedious of romantic grooves – yep, the duo who are the last to figure out that they're meant for each other. So the first act, up until 1992, sees the guy playboying around London while the gal is engaged in the discouraging business of eliminating the literary half of the writer-waitress profession. But their friendship survives and, on one of the July 15th stopovers, they even take a holiday together, skinny-dipping platonically as Dexter buoys her ever-flagging confidence with a favourite mantra: "You're attractive, you're sexy, you're the smartest woman I know." Nevertheless, for reasons best known to them, our should-be-lovers still don't get it on.
Act two ushers in the attempt at character development – or, in this case, character assassination. Now the host of a TV variety show as widely watched as it is monumentally dumb, Dexter has gotten famous. He's also acquired a nasty drug habit, a nature that vacillates between arrogance and insecurity, an iffy marriage with an adulterous wife, and a warning from his cancer-stricken mom – "You're not very nice any more." Emma's acquisitions are more mundane: a teacher's certificate and a live-in affair with one of those nice-but-deadly-boring boyfriends. Ostensibly, as the millennium dawns, both are getting older, too, yet not so anyone would notice – seems that time has altered nothing but their hair-styles.
The final act opens in Paris, 2003, where Emma – minus the specs now, with the ugly duckling in full swan mode – is working on a book. Since Dexter is working off a divorce, that paves the way for the Big Kiss by the Seine, which is where your average rom-com would screech to its happily-ever-after stop. Instead, embarking on its own self-improvement program, One Day pushes along several more years, inviting us en route to shed some real tears. The sentimental-minded will likely comply, welling up through the last frames and wishing that the road to the end didn't slog through the beginning and middle.
Yes, most movies lose momentum and this one gathers it, but 20 July days spread over 20 consecutive summers is a long time to wait. So I'll leave you to choose. Either embrace the cliché – better late than never; or stand that cliché right on its head – better never than this late.
- Directed by Lone Scherfig
- Written by David Nicholls
- Starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess
- Classification: PG