One Day is a story of the attraction of opposites. Emma, played by Anne Hathaway (Ella Enchanted, Love and Other Drugs) is a hardworking girl who writes poetry. Dexter, played by Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, 21) lives a life funded by his wealthy parents and will readily admit his love for a pair of penny loafers but not for another human being.
Based on the novel by David Nicholls, One Day joins Emma and Dexter on the night of their graduation when they first meet. This is July 15, 1988, St. Swithun’s Day, which in English lore marks the beginning of tradition. The film rejoins their lives every year on July 15 for 20 years, following as they take on new cities, new jobs and new experiences whether together, with other people or alone. This unconventional format allows the film to thrive in the way that the characters are able to fully develop.
The plot is not strikingly original, though the form it takes does provide a fresh spin on the classic love story. By only showing events that happen on July 15 annually, the audience is thrust into the heart of the story because, since they are not told or shown everything, they must infer for themselves what has happened in the last 12 months and how this has affected Dexter, Emma and those around them. In some cases it is obvious (like when Dexter grows a ponytail), while with other more profound changes the viewer must read between the lines of what the characters are saying and how they are behaving. This is engaging and forces intimacy with the characters.
Not that intimacy would be otherwise difficult. Sturgess and Hathaway both offer captivating performances as Dexter and Emma throughout the 20 years that they develop onscreen. They portray a convincing transformation from young and ambitious to older, wiser and more seasoned people without losing the elements of individuality that make them so charming. Hathaway’s Emma transforms from awkward twenty-something girl to poised woman, while maintaining a youthful zeal. Sturgess’s expressions as Dexter are heart-churning, revealing glimpses of what is going on under his playful exterior.
Although One Day is centred on Dexter and Emma’s relationship, it is not one-dimensional. The film reveals other aspects of their lives like their aspirations, their families and their careers. We see Emma struggle as a writer and end up waitressing at a tacky Mexican restaurant, which she describes as “the graveyard of ambition.” We see her put her heart and soul into trying to achieve something in her life and where that takes her.
One limitation of the film is the degree to which it is steeped in romanticism, from the plot to the wistful dialogue to the cozy apartments and misty beaches in London and Paris. This creates a beautiful visual element but limits the realness of the characters. Though Dexter and Emma face very real challenges, they live rather insular lives. We do see elements of the times woven in; for example, in the early ’90s there is a copy of The Watchmen that flashes onto the screen, and later that decade there is a line about the emergence of cell phones and how “those things will kill you.” Other than trinkets and changes in fashion, however, the characters seem to remain largely detached from the outside world and its influences.
Although the film is rendered less relatable through the total romanticism, this doesn’t take away from the beauty of the piece. Ultimately, the context of the film is fascinating. Twenty years for a lot of us is most of our lives and One Day succeeds in presenting a soulful and engaging example of what can happen to two people over that stretch of time. The performances of Hathaway and Sturgess, of course, go a long way in convincing us why any of it is important.