Emma, played by the almost always charming Anne Hathaway, gets top billing. But in reality this story is about Dexter and his two-decade search for goodness—not outside himself, but within. During the course of the film, he transforms from shallow grad to all-out cad to a sorta sad but infinitely improved man. And it's his story—which upends the myth that wealth and success makes us happier and therefore better people—that gives One Day its moral moorings.
Host of a popular music show when he's in his 20s, Dexter spends most of his time drunk—even when visiting his dying mother. "Right now I worry that you're not very nice anymore," she confesses to him. And, when Dexter leaves, his father tells him that he'll lock him out of the family house if he ever shows up in that condition again.
The visit wounds him, but not enough to change his trajectory. As Dexter the star climbs higher, Dexter the person sinks deeper. It's only when his showbiz career goes kaput that he can begin the painful process of learning what life is really about. He essentially starts over, getting a job from an old college friend making salads. He marries and becomes a father (not exactly in that order), learning the joys of being a dad (even as his wife cheats on him). Most critically, he renews his acquaintance with Emma, and eventually they fall in love. And while their relationship has some problematic points to be sure, it also illustrates that to be a good person, we sometimes need good people around us.
[Spoiler Warning] Dex and Emma get married. And when Emma dies in an accident, Dexter nearly falls apart. His father, in his own gruff way, comes to his rescue. "Try to live your life as if Emma was still here," he tells Dex. And when Dex expresses doubt that he can, his now-widowed father says, "Of course you can. What do you think I've been doing for the past 10 years?"
In the end, Dexter does just that, staying true to the person he was with Emma (rather than the drunken, out-of-control sap he was without her). "She made you decent," Emma's former boyfriend, Ian, tells Dex, "and in return you made her so happy."
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess
Released in the UK on 24 August
How do you tell the story of two lives in a 400-page novel, in a 100-minute film, in a 700-word review? It helps if one of the characters shines brightly and the other becomes briefly beautiful, burning like light through stopped celluloid. Otherwise, it’s a process of selection, compression and translation: the trick of adaptation.
One Day is adapted by David Nicholls from his own best-seller with the devoted fidelity of a long-term partner; that is, with a lot of give and take. Scenes are shuffled like loose snapshots. Internal narration becomes conversation. A line of thought is lost, a visual moment gained. Like the best adaptations, this is a dialogue, a compromise, a relationship.
As for the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), they become friends on the night of their graduation, then fall in and out of love over two decades. They never formally date, but their lives together are ruled by dates - or rather one date, 15 July, which we revisit each year to find them together or apart. And of course, they also date, as we all do: that is, they grow up and get older.
One Day avoids obvious in-jokes and nostalgic gimmicks as its central couple travels from 1988 to 2008. Emma’s accent evolves slowly, losing some of its Yorkshire roots; Dexter’s hair changes hilariously, from a Brideshead-style flop to a short-lived ponytail. Emma moves to Paris, dumps her Doc Martens and gets a Jean Seberg crop; Dexter visits her, divorced and rumpled, looking like a tired Jude Law. Mobile phones shrink and chart hits remind us of our own yesterdays, but the cultural references are kept to a minimum.
Instead, director Lone Scherfig wisely and generously gives the actors space and time to develop, like photographs; like people. They grow into that space. Hathaway’s performance in particular conveys intricately shifting subtleties. Her brave, stubborn smile sometimes slips to show years of hurt, yet when she’s with Dexter, she is radiant. “She lit up with you,” one character tells him.
Hathaway’s unglamorous and unafraid immersion in her character illuminates the film, and her spark spreads to the supporting cast. Romola Garai is distantly luminous as Dexter’s wife Sylvie, while Patricia Clarkson glows with brittle, porcelain fragility as his mother. Even his five-year-old daughter Jasmine (Emilia Jones) breathes shock and shame into the single word “Dad”, and Rafe Spall is oddly heartbreaking as the failed comedian Ian, who realises he can never be Emma’s true love.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme codes characters and periods through unobtrusive colour schemes. Emma’s washed-out, faded twenties, as a waitress and then a teacher, contrast with the golden glitz and neon glare of Dexter’s short-lived TV success. Dexter’s lonely, granite-and-steel apartment, where the only colour is vodka-and-orange, dissolves into the delicate blonde and celadon of Sylvie’s elegant world: the colour of swimming pools. Light on water is a recurring motif, from the pinks and blues playing on Dexter’s and Emma’s naked skin as they swim on holiday to the municipal pool that punctuates Emma’s routines, where her fast, rhythmic breathing becomes a memento mori - a sign of her life, but also a reminder that death can be around the next corner.
“It was always there,” says Ian, surprising himself with the observation, “just waiting.” The recognition that tragedy can come suddenly is what elevates Nicholls’ novel from likeable, forgettable popular fiction to something more ambitious and more haunting, and equally, it transforms the film. One Day has at its heart the realisation - which Nicholls borrows from Tess of the D’Urbervilles - that the best of days can also be, on the same date in another year, the very worst of days.
This truth makes every living moment more poignant: poignant in the sense of “piercing”, with an echo of “punctum”, Roland Barthes’ term for the pointed pain of old photographs, and punctuation - the repeated scenes that carry us closer, with the inexorable rhythm of breath and passing time, towards the film’s last gasp and last goodbye.
One Day reminds us that love, like grief, can stab hard and hurt, and that no days are perfect, but all days are precious.