One Day resembles another recent fatuous love story, (500) Days of Summer, in the way it forces a dull-toannoying couple’s romantic game-playing upon audiences. Emma and Dexter (Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess) meet at university in 1986 London and over the course of 20 years become lovers, then a married couple. She wants to be a poet but lacks confidence and money; he’s a naturally glib, rich-boy gadabout who finds early success as a TV host but no life purpose.
Maybe the middle class will find these characters interesting, since they are designed to flatter fantasies about their own insecurities and superficiality. Problem is, as with (500) Days of Summer, One Day is neither comedy nor satire; it uses numerous narrative gimmicks to avoid the fact of its humdrum banality. The film’s casual approach to love and obsession begins with Dexter telling Emma, "Everyone’s lost at 25" (a sop to the bourgeois indie audience), and director Lone Scherfig takes 20 years to prove his point.
I count at least four competing gimmicks in the method Scherfig chooses to film David Nicholls’ adaptation of his own novel. First, there’s the fake literary conceit of catching Emma and Dexter at yearly intervals, always on July 15—St. Swithun’s Day. There’s no particular purpose, besides giving this apolitical, non-spiritual film a pretend grounding in English lore. This unoriginal concept goes back even further than (500) Days of Summer to the Broadway gimmick play Same Time, Next Year, about two adulterers’ annual dalliance. Critic Dennis Delrogh keenly spotted the same speciousness at the heart of Brokeback Mountain—it’s an attempt to provide bogus substance to arbitrary storytelling.
Emma and Dexter show no concept of time (the anxiety that weighed upon Antonioni’s and Resnais’ lovers) but remain bored with their individual lives. Their boring Englishness unfortunately turns the film into a countdown: As successive datelines graphically appeared in alternating corners of the screen, I kept wanting the film to hurry up and get to the present.
Gimmick two is the Pop Marker, structured in Dexter’s TV gig on a British music program called Late Night Lockin. Various movies and pop songs tag Emma and Dexter’s sexual and career journeys—her mismatch with an aspiring stand-up comic (Rafe Spall); his decadent carousing with and eventual marriage to a wealthy dilettante (Romola Garai). Each occurrence is dated with trite significance through movie and song titles—from Jurassic Park to Army of Darkness—that are like the hints Woody Allen drops to show his snobbery or sophistication. But they get in the way of understanding that Emma and Dexter are representative figures of their times. Does the wedding reception karaoke scene featuring Robbie Williams’ anthemic "Angels" prove a yearning for spirituality or the kitschy opposite? Does the wonderful rowdy comradeship of "Reverend Black Grape" indicate social commitment or frivolity? Is this indifference the protagonists’ upperclass contempt for pop or merely the filmmakers’ cultural detachment?
Moments of sudden seriousness provide gimmick three. Dexter’s dying mother (Patricia Clarkson, a hammy Brit this time) warns, "I know you’re going to be a fine man—decent, accomplished, loving—but you’re not there yet. I’m afraid you’re mean," and Emma accuses, "You’re not who you used to be." Both assessments prove wrong. As in her previous film, the insufferable An Education, director Scherfig sentimentalizes shallow behavior to indict the morality of passing eras. This misjudgment goes along with her climactic, out-of-nowhere traffic accident; One Day’s final, unearned shock, sadness and emotional complications come from a cheap right hook that deserves to be exposed.
Gimmick four is market straddling, combining American and British sales points that don’t match. Hathaway’s passable British accent isn’t enough to ignore her American essence, that brighteyed, slightly goofy sadness Liza Minnelli had in The Sterile Cuckoo. Emma’s awkwardness during a Brief Encounter-style romance-interruptus lacks a convincing British trait. Sturgess has that essence naturally and he makes Dexter a realistic Tory lout (the role Steve Coogan now fakes). This can’t-help-himself screw-up recalls a modern version of James Mason in A Star is Born. That was a heartbreaker without pretense—the one gimmick Scherfig forgot.
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Running time: 107 min.