Film Review: One Day

Friends' relationship changes over the years in a gimmicky romance with a strong emotional payoff.

Based on a best-selling romance, One Day charts the evolving relationship between two college graduates over two decades, during which they grow together and apart while grappling with life's complexities. Boasting an assured performance from Anne Hathaway and gorgeous production values, the film has some structural issues that limit its box-office potential. Viewers willing to buy into the story's gimmicks will be rewarded with a heartbreaking ending.

The story begins and ends in Edinburgh as students celebrate their graduation night. Two opposites—the privileged, wealthy Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and the smart but insecure Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway)—are thrown together as their friends pair off. Against the odds, they find common interests and form a platonic friendship.

That friendship is strained over the years, both by their class differences and by the decisions they make. Emma feels trapped working in a Mexican restaurant in London as her dreams of becoming a writer fade. In his family's eyes, Dexter sells out his potential by becoming the obnoxious host of a grating music-video TV show. Drugs, alcohol and empty affairs leave him ill-equipped to cope with personal crises, like the illness of his mother Alison (Patricia Clarkson).

The two remain in touch, despite fights, disappointments and even marriages. Music, food and memorably awful clothes and hairstyles mark the passage of time. It would not be much of a romance if Emma and Dexter didn't find a measure of happiness, so it is not giving the plot away to note that the two ultimately fall in love. But although Emma appears in almost all the scenes, this is really a story of Dexter's redemption. And for much of the story, he is so unappealing that it is hard to warm up to the film as a whole.

Screenwriter David Nicholls, who adapted his own novel, covered a similar milieu in Starter for 10. His lines have a crackling wit that is sometimes lost in the dense accents. Nicholls writes knowingly about moments of personal humiliation, and his scenes are suffused with loss and regret, as if the characters know they are wasting their lives. Much of the film seems like a shorthand version of the novel, and it's curious to see what Nicholls left in—like a party game that is inexplicable onscreen—and what he took out. Dexter's sister is gone, for one thing, as well as his self-awareness. In the book, Dexter gives an intriguing narration to his long, self-destructive slide; onscreen, he comes off as a clueless lout.
Sturgess does what he can to make Dexter likeable, but it is up to Hathaway to supply both the charm and gravity the story needs. Purists may complain about her accent, but she is so effortlessly winning that she overcomes all doubts.

The Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) keeps a light tone despite the plot's occasional dark turns, but she also presents viewers with a world that is beautiful even when it isn't supposed to be. Witness the flowers that frame a terminal cancer patient, or the film's idealized version of Paris. But Scherfig has also staged the story's final moments with delicacy and restraint. One Day may not have an earth-shattering message, but it does present its characters' struggles with enough honesty and insight to merit its weepy ending.