Lone Scherfig’s One Day is another on that increasingly frustrating list of movies that I liked, but wanted to love and didn’t quite. Oh, I think it’s certainly a good film—a good film that Focus Features has killed any chances for success by releasing it on too many screens at once—but it ought to have been a great one. Having spent two days trying to figure out why it doesn’t quite work, the best I can come up with is to blame everyone. By this, I mean that the writer, the director and the stars are all slightly at fault. No single one of them does anything that by itself thwarts the film’s ambitions—the writer comes closest—but each of them contributes enough small missteps that the aggregate becomes impossible to ignore.
The premise—and the hook—is simple. Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) spend the night of college graduation—July 15—together and then part. (The story behind that parting isn’t revealed until late in the film). The film then drops in on them—sometimes they’re together, often they’re not—on future July 15ths over a period of 20 years. (People keep thinking this is somehow like Same Time Next Year and it isn’t in the least.) The idea is that we will learn about the two and, of course, wait for them to realize that they’re not only in love with each other, but are “meant” to be together. Conceptually, that’s both clever and daunting. In execution, it works in broad strokes, but doesn’t—at least for me—have the emotional punch it ought to have, not even when it takes its theoretically surprising turn.
It’s hard to fault the acting—and, no, I don’t give a damn whether or not Anne Hathaway has a real Yorkshire accent. Hathaway is as good as the role allows, but there’s only so much that can be done with Emma and the way the character is sketched in. We learn, for example, that she once called Dexter’s father (Ken Stott) a “bourgeois fascist,” but we never learn why, nor—apart from her self-conscious middle-class status—do we get a glimpse of her views that would lead to it. She—and the film—however are very adept at painting a picture of Emma as someone who “settles” for things. She nearly settles for working in a restaurant, she does settle for teaching rather than writing, and she settles for a nice, but terminally dull, boyfriend (Rafe Spall). In many respects, the major thing—despite the screenplay’s insistence on something else—that Dexter does for her is make it hard for her to settle.
Dexter himself is a trickier proposition. It takes his mother (Patricia Clarkson) a good while to conclude he’s “no longer a nice person,” and even longer for Emma to decide, “I still love you, Dex, but I don’t like you anymore.” (No, that’s not a spoiler, that’s way before the ending.) It takes the viewer much less time to conclude that Dexter is pretty much a self-absorbed jerk. Jim Sturgess barely manages to skate by the middle sections of the film on his innate likableness, but only barely. The film—and the fact that he looks increasingly battered—rectifies this, but a somewhat sour taste for the narcissistic, spoiled rich boy turned smarmy TV host remains.
The worst of it, though, is the facile manner in which everything is tidied up through a single improbable conversation that I can’t reveal here. And then we have another case of a movie that seems to have not one ending, but a series of them. Any one would have been fine, but taken one after another, I ended up feeling like W.C. Fields being subjected to endless choruses of a song in The Old Fashioned Way (1934)—to a point where I nearly muttered, “Oh, you’re really finished this time”—which is not, I’m sure, what was intended. But don’t misunderstand, I did like the movie. I did admire the attempt at something different. And I do think it a shame that it will never have the time to find its audience in the way a limited release might have afforded it. Catch it while you can. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, some violence and substance abuse.