Lone Scherfig’s One Day operates with such ruthless emotional calculation that, being swept up in all the decades-spanning poignancy, it’s easy for the viewer to overlook the film’s numerous flaws. These infelicities include an over-reliance on platitudes, a relentless milking of questionable sentiment, and, most fatally, a lack of any sense of real connection between the romantic leads. This last problem is partly the result of the film’s half-daring structure, which confines its action to a single calendar day (July 15), checking in on the characters every year from 1988 to 2011 while keeping its would-be couple largely separate for much of the movie. But it also has as much to do with the seeming incompatibility of the central pair, even as the vicissitudes of their respective lives are meant to suggest an ironing out of the temperamental differences between the two.
Rather than the romantic angle which eventually takes center stage, what gives the project its authentic poignancy is the filmmakers’ understanding of the ways in which our lives often unfold in radically different fashion from our expectations. As such, the potentially gimmicky structure rises above the level of a cute trick through the skillful employment of ellipses to register, with an affecting thud, the changes in the characters’ lives. In fact, Scherfig and screenwriter David Nicholls’s handling of the central narrative conceit is at once subtle and easily intelligible, deftly providing us with the information we need to know without falling prey to heavy-handed exposition.
Following an aborted end-of-college hookup between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturges), the two drift apart over the years, staying in intermittent touch as they weather bad marriages, misguided career paths, and the sense of emptiness that, bowing to romantic convention, they can only fulfill for each other. While we watch Emma move from a mousy, Tracy Chapman-listening idealist out to save the world, to cynically resigned waitress, to successful children’s novelist (and sophisticated hottie), and Dexter squander his talents in booze, women, and minor fame as the host of a teeny-bopper television music revue, before his luck runs out and he’s forced to confront oncoming middle-age, Scherfig powerfully conveys the ache of searching for purpose in life and not knowing where to find it. (Although Emma has more luck in this regard than Dexter, even if her career path doesn’t quite live up to her youthful optimism.)
And yet, for all her clear-eyed understanding of life’s inevitable disappointments, Scherfig can only view her film’s romantic angle with a combination of inevitability and gross sentimentality. Although the filmmakers smartly suggest that both characters need to undergo a certain independent maturation before they’re ready to successfully couple, once they do come together, Scherfig and Nicholls dispense with considerations like restraint and taste and treat the incipient romance and its immediate aftermath with warmed-over mating scenes (Emma chasing down Dexter along the banks of the Seine to declare her love) and concessions to utter domestic conventionality (Emma wants nothing more than to have Dexter’s baby because isn’t that what all women want?). And then, the pair having achieved happiness, the filmmakers’ need to assert godlike manipulation over the characters’ lives—which, until the movie’s climax, had never felt obtrusive—leads them to indulge in a move of such arbitrariness and emotional rankness that the movie never quite recovers. One Day conveys a real sense of the poignancy of individual lives unfolding over time, but the film’s ultimate embrace of conventionality—whether manifest in its clichés, in its investment in idealized romantic coupling, or in its need to resort to tear-jerking machinations—ultimately undercuts the not inconsiderable accomplishments the project had worked so hard to achieve.