I haven’t read One Day the book, so I didn’t know not to expect a Same Time, Next Year sort of gimmick. That’s the 1978 dramedy in which Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn’s adulterous couple meet just once a year for a tryst and a catchup and a reflection on life, marriage, growing older, and all that rot. Instead, in One Day the movie we get a completely different gimmick: we peek in on the lives of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) one day each year, always on July 15th, from the occasion of their graduation from university in Edinburgh in the late 1980s through the solidification of their adult lives in the late 2000s in London.
It’s a particularly gimmicky sort of gimmick, and a deeply dissatisfying one, because it’s not as if Emma and Dexter don’t see each other on many of the intervening days. There seems to be no reason for the gimmick, except for the coincidence of major events that bookend the story… but there’s no narrative urgency that requires these events to take place on the same day. Except to shoehorn them into the gimmick.
There’s a lot of would-be wrenching stuff that One Day tries to pull that it doesn’t earn. We’re meant to see Emma and Dexter, who orbit around each other in a not-quite-platonic, not-quite-romantic friendship for many of these years, as a “perfect union of opposites” who’re are destined, somehow, to end up as lovers — the conversation about Dexter’s yin-yang tattoo smashes us over the head with this notion early in the film. But getting us emotionally invested in such an eventuality, and gripped with suspense waiting for it to happen, requires that we actually like these two, that we believe in them individually, that we want to see them as a couple, and that we buy that there’s unresolved sexual tension between them.
Would that that were the case. I find Jim Sturgess (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, 21) relentlessly appealing in a nice-guy sort of way, which is perhaps why I never accepted, not for one minute, that he turns into a sleazebag TV personality in his 20s who cares for nothing but himself and his own hedonistic pleasures. Anne Hathaway’s (Rio, Love and Other Drugs) onscreen charms do not extend toward the brainy: we’re meant to see Emma as frumpy and literary, neither of which she is capable of exuding. (Hathaway’s accent — Emma is from Yorkshire — is fairly dreadful, but it wouldn’t have been enough to sink the movie if that was all that was wrong with it.) She can’t help how pretty she is, of course, but a bad haircut and a pair of Harry Potter glasses can’t hide it, either. Sturgess and Hathaway don’t look like a mismatched pair of unlikely lovers, which is how we’re supposed to see them: they look like two beautiful people who will fall in movieized love because the script demands it of them. And they never feel like they’re destined for each other, except in the manipulative ways of poorly written movies that drag you inexorably toward their only possible conclusion.
The script is a major problem: author David Nicholls adapted his own novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], which isn’t always a good idea. There’s one moment early in the film, when Emma, who dreams of being a writer, is resolved to continuing to work in the dumpy Mexican restaurant she’s stuck in (because who makes a living as a poet?) and Dexter “helpfully” tells her: “You can’t throw away years of your life because you think it’s funny.” That probably works in the novel, and I bet Nicholls loves this line. He must, for him to have lobbed it into the screenplay without anything to support it. If Emma is supposed to be someone with a snarky sense of self-deprecation who would somehow find a way to work ironically in a Mexican restaurant (while, say, writing a novel), there’s no sense of that here. We never get any notion of Emma as a writer at all… she merely goes from wanting to write to suddenly having written a bestselling novel. Deep, meaningful life’s work that magically gets done. Profoundly important relationships that we never see grow. Maybe we needed to see a few more days each year.
All that, though, could probably be forgiven if only we were electrified by Dexter and Emma onscreen. The unforgivable problem with One Day is that it is dreadfully miscast. I want to give director Lone Scherfig a pass on this, because I’ve loved her other films: An Education is a remarkable and rare look at female adolescence, and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is an unforgettable black comedy. But as director, she’s responsible for casting. She must have seen that Hathaway and Sturgess have no chemistry together. She must have seen that both of them, talented as they are, are wildly wrong for these roles. These stars, through no fault of their own, turn something that should be yearningly romantic into a wet blanket of sulking misery.