One Day takes place on St. Swithin's Day, July 15th, but this isn't one of those films that plays out over the course of 24 hours. In fact, the story One Day tells unfolds over something closer to 24 years, dropping into the lives of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) on the same date each year to see how their lives are progressing. Sometimes they're together, often they're apart, and as we watch them grow older, we – and they – wonder if these long-term friends are actually made for each other. It's a smart literary device and one that certainly worked for author David Nicholls, whose bestseller has become something of an instant classic, eliciting tears and superlatives from most readers.
The film adaptation might not reach audiences in quite the same way, but it does have plenty to commend it. Nicholls (who wrote the screenplay) has stayed true to the distinctive structure of his book, with the movie opening on July 15th 1988, as Emma and Dexter meet for the first time in the aftermath of celebrating their university graduation. They spend the night together, but in a platonic fashion, and that's the state they remain in for many years: just good friends. Emma, an aspiring writer, takes a dead-end job in a Mexican restaurant and begins a relationship with stand-up comedian Ian (Rafe Spall). Meanwhile, Dexter enjoys a more decadent and rootless existence, becoming a TV presenter on an outrageous late night show (obviously modelled on The Word and its ilk) and making a dubious name for himself as "the most annoying man on television." The pair appear to be drifting apart, but there's a deep connection there that ensures they keep returning to one another. She never seems happier than when she's with Dexter, while he finds a sense of stability and understanding with her that he can't find anywhere else.
Thus, the ingredients for a classic romantic tearjerker all appear to be in place, with the obstacles that lie between Emma and Dexter only piquing our anticipation of the moment when they will finally fall into each other's arms. One Day doesn't really hit those big emotional peaks that we might be expecting, though, and part of the problem lies in that narrative structure. The film moves fluidly enough between scenes, with each new sequence marking another annual leap, but this technique is sometimes disruptive to our engagement with the story, as we continually readjust with the characters each having suddenly moved on with their lives. The result is a rather uneven piece of storytelling that occasionally skips whole years in a flash (and even drops the odd period clanger, suggesting the premiere of Jurassic Park took place in 1994); but even if it never quite delivers the (heavily telegraphed) emotional sucker punch that it promises, One Day does manage to find moments of emotional resonance through a number of skilfully crafted individual scenes.
The film has been directed by Lone Sherfig, who does the same polished and subtle job with this material that she did with 2009's An Education. She can't do much with the conundrum of her central couple being kept apart for much of the film, but she is a fine judge of tone and she consistently hits the right note in their individual stories. I particularly liked Dexter's relationship with his parents (Ken Stott and an underutilised Patricia Clarkson), whose worries for their son as his drug-fuelled lifestyle goes off the rails is touchingly portrayed in a couple of short but impactful scenes. Likewise, I enjoyed Rafe Spall's performance as an unsuccessful comedian with whom Emma shares an unfulfilling period. Sherfig has always been an excellent director of actors and she draws sharp turns from the whole ensemble here.
Of course, the success or failure of the film depends largely on the strength of the two leads. Hathaway is unlikely casting as an awkward, frumpy, northern lass (unglamorous outfits and big glasses can't dim her radiant beauty), and her accent only occasionally reminds us of the city she's supposed to be from, but she gives a warm and intelligent performance nonetheless. However, it quickly becomes obvious that Emma is the less interesting of the film's central characters, with Dexter's two decades being markedly more turbulent and compelling. Dexter has to be alternately arrogant and charming, loving and selfish, and Sturgess handles the complexities of his character with real adroitness, making him feel more like a fully-fledged human being than Emma is allowed to become. It's his tale that ultimately feels like the true narrative thread of One Day, and while the film may not be the grand love story it has been presented as, it is a rather astute and thoughtful examination of the way life takes us down unexpected and often painful paths, leaving us wiser and more complete for the experience.