Novels can do a great job of conveying the scope of a character’s life across years or even decades, but movies have a much tougher time. There’s only so much story you can cram into two hours, and only so many years you can follow a character before switching actors or relying on unconvincing aging makeup. So on the page David Nicholls’ novel One Day may play like a sweeping emotional epic, but on screen it’s like watching a highlights reel of a much longer story, with characters who suspiciously barely age over the course of 20 years.
The gimmick of both the movie and Nicholls’ novel is that the story checks in on friends/lovers Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) for just one day each year, detailing what they’re doing on (almost) every July 15 from 1988 through 2011. They start as recent university graduates in Edinburgh, and progress through career ups and downs, various romances and their complicated relationship with each other, sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes loving. Director Lone Scherfig brought a mature tone to the romance of her last film, An Education, and One Day is similarly restrained, but far less complex. Hathaway (who sports a spotty British accent) and Sturgess have limited chemistry, and the characters’ lives are sketched in such rushed detail that it’s hard to get a handle on their emotions and ambitions. The supporting cast is even more insubstantial, coming and going in short, flat bursts that give no sense of a wider world beyond the single day each year.
When Nicholls (who wrote the screenplay) and Scherfig allow the characters to relax for a moment and events to unfold more casually, Hathaway and Sturgess have a few lovely scenes of intimate connection. But even those brief highlights are retroactively soured by a maudlin, sentimental ending that tips the whole movie into melodrama. Questions of how people and circumstances change over time are brushed aside in favor of blatant tear-jerking, and at that point any investment we had in these people’s lives is completely invalidated.