The one day is July 15th, and in 1988, as they both graduate from the University of Edinburgh, Dexter and Emma have a friendly night together. There is sex and, on Em’s part, at least, there is love. This is still a movie in which the girl is reckoned to feel love sooner, and with more loyalty. Dex assumes he is handsome and commanding enough to be an adventurer and a flake, with a field to play and no urge to commitment. But I’ve only told you the half of it (or less than half). They are also Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, two pretty actors with a lot of talent, but quite helpless with any notion that they might be making an attempt on real and ordinary people.
This is from a best-selling and allegedly beloved novel by David Nicholls, who has done his own script for a movie directed by Lone Scherfig (a Danish woman, who directed An Education). I haven’t read the book, and I don’t think I will. But the structure of the movie is cute and inane: Over the years, we keep up with Em and Dex every July 15th. Why? Well, I suppose it seemed like a sweet and artful idea to someone, and it does permit all manner of fatuous graphics to tell us here’s that lovely day again, all of which get in the way of a more interesting possibility—that we might truly follow a relationship over a period of, say, twenty years. What kind of friends or lovers only think of each other on St. Swithin’s Day? Why is the real pattern of obsession, drift, memory, and forgetting reduced to a weird Hallmark occasion? And why should anyone cater to this fancy when two edible young stars are in sight, with every sign of developing intelligence? They know, and we know, that they’re coming together, because movies can’t resist concepts like “true love” and “made for each other.” Yet in life, of course, such creeds are not reliable, and people do all manner of things in defiance of casting and the intractable laws of movie alliance. We insist on being stupid.
I’m not going to spoil One Day’s story, except to say that the movie acts as its own spoiler with a drastic intervention that may be a nervous defense mechanism against the film’s accumulation of sweetness, as well as a way of getting off. After all, July 15th could go on and on, past retirement and dementia. A movie needs a resolution, the biggest advantage the form has over life.
None of this sounds promising, especially if you consider that these two people live through the years without any marked sense of the world and what is going on. It’s true that Dex becomes an odious television host on what is called a show for young people, and in fairly broad strokes we see how his early flakiness prompts a kind of moral downfall. So Em goes through a stage when she loves him but really cannot like him. All the greater pity that Em’s gradual progress from working in a Mexican restaurant and being a school teacher leads to her becoming a novelist. I can buy that, but I deserve to know about the book she writes (it seems to be a success), how it shifts the balance in her mind and promotes an adult personality. Any real novelist would know enough to write Dex off—and even to make him a warning figure in an expose novel. But that courage or critical observation would break the cultural class system of “made for each other,” which weighs more heavily in One Day than the British economy, Blair and Iraq, global warming, or the rampant advance in Britain of electronic technology, to say nothing of the new aristocracy of shits. In other words, Dex and Em are never allowed entry to the real world such as we’ve seen in the 7-Up series of documentaries.
And yet the film is worth seeing, in great part because I think Ms. Scherfig has genuine talent. You see this most of all in the careful treatment of some of the supporting characters—above all, Dex’s parents, who plainly were not made for each other, but who have learned ways of working it out. That is a great lesson for the rest of the film. For instance, our made-for-each-other couple do come together after years of being passing ships. Then for a moment clouds of dismay and unease drift across the bright blue of happiness—and that would have been worth exploring, because thwarted longing can be easier to sustain than close company.
In the end, however, the reason to see this very lightweight film, and the reason why it may touch you, is because Hathaway and Sturgess have become the objects of our emotional investment. There are difficulties with Hathaway: She is meant to be British but can’t help sounding American at times; try as she might, she doesn’t have it in her to repress her bright-eyed radiance; she ages in only minor and flattering ways—no one puts on weight; and she isn’t allowed to acquire the demanding selfishness of a creative personality. Never mind, Hathaway improves all the time, and I can believe there might be something grand coming. As for Jim Sturgess (last seen in Peter Weir’s The Way Back), he is a clever, deft actor. When he has to listen to his dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) tell him that he needs to change his ways, struggling feelings cross his lovely but debauched face like toothache.
Together, Hathaway and Sturgess deliver one important dividend: They make us feel we have been on a journey with these people. You could watch One Day and feel excited by a stunning proposition: suppose you made a movie about two real friends in the twenty or so years after they graduate! Instead, One Day is just a gimmicky “new” way of doing an old-fashioned love story. But we’ll hear much more of Sturgess, Hathaway, and Lone Scherfig.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.