Your cynical side may resent you for enjoying One Day.
But your romantic side will probably tell your cynical side to take a flying leap.
Yeah, it’s predicated on a gimmick. Every episode in this Brit saga — there are 20 of them — takes place on July 15 in successive years. (David Nicholls adapted his own novel for the screen.)
We meet Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) on July 15, 1988 as they celebrate their college graduation by partying all night with mutual friends. As dawn breaks they end up in her apartment ... but all they do is talk (at least I think that’s all they do).
They’re an odd couple. Dex is a mediocre student but a wildly successful social animal. He’s a garrulous charmer, shallow but irresistible.
Emma is the dorky brain. Clearly she’s never enjoyed Dexter’s party life. Her look — shapeless dresses, Doc Marten boots and huge glasses — and her self-deprecating humor suggest a graceless young woman with little confidence in the romance department.
And yet over the next two decades their lives will be entwined in ways both swooning and heartbreaking.
Every July 15 we drop in on them. Occasionally they’re on different continents, but usually they find a way to spend at least part of the day together. One year they travel together through Italy... but only as friends.
Their careers rise and fall. Emma spends a couple of years schlepping tacos at a Mexican restaurant in London. Later she finds her calling as a middle-school teacher. Finally she comes into her own writing novels for young adults.
Dexter finds fame and notoriety as the smarmy host of a popular TV music program. But as he lacks any real talent that gig eventually dries up.
Their personal lives are another story. Emma cohabits with a helplessly inept wannabe comedian (Rafe Spall) who adores her, but she doesn’t love him. Dexter endures the death of his mother (Patricia Clarkson), enjoys a series of widely publicized romances with brainless beauties, and gets in over his head with booze and drugs. Eventually he marries a humorless and thoroughly responsible gal (Romola Garai) with whom he has a child.
But all the while Emma and Dexter remain connected on a very deep level. They consider themselves best friends ... but could there be something more?
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A film like this rises and falls with its lead players, and Hathaway and Sturgess are more than up to the task.
Not so long ago I regarded Hathaway as a dispensable lightweight. No more. At first her Emma is a bit irritating, trying too hard to be snarky and glib (she describes an apartment as smelling of “onions and disappointment”). But we soon realize that Emma’s droll sardonicism is a pose, a way of dealing with her feelings of inadequacy and an attraction to Dexter that she dares not indulge. (Her girly side wants him; her rational side recognizes he’s a lost cause.)
It’s a genuine pleasure to see this character come into her own, both professionally and as a person.
Sturgess’ Dex, on the other hand, starts out with all the depth of Petri dish. He’s the kind of guy who will learn only if life keeps whacking him over the head, and darned if by film’s end he hasn’t grown to be a genuinely good person. Of course this involves a lot of whacking.
A good movie romance should let us feel what it’s like to fall in love. One Day does that and a bit more — it allows us to experience the arcs of human lives in a wonderfully thoughtful, emotional way.
So indulge your romantic side and tell your inner cynic what he can do with himself.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.