Buried inside One Day, underneath a pile of slick transitions and generic Britishisms, lies an honest-bordering-on-nihilistic treatise on how, to borrow a phrase from Gaspar Noé, time destroys everything. Unspooling over 20 years on the same day—July 15, aka St. Swithun’s Day, a possible Simpsons reference—director Lone Scherfig’s follow-up to An Education begins in 1988 with fresh postgrad Emma (Anne Hathaway) crowing about making a difference. Instead, she’ll watch as plans falter, ambitions shrink and large chunks of life are wasted on bad jobs and bad lovers.
Such disappointment even applies to her friend-with-occasional-benefits Dexter (Jim Sturgess). What does this initial Ugly(ish) Duckling, who uses humor as a defense mechanism and thinks Tracey Chapman is passable sex music, see in this rakish lout, who coasts on privilege, good looks and a self-destructive streak? Despite Hathaway’s heroic efforts to convey passion, it’s a mystery, and not one of the truly mysterious ones. Sturgess’ Dexter is a horndog most in lust with himself, who either makes empty passes at his bestie or uses her for parasitic self-pity, especially once his career as one of England’s many obnoxious TV presenters leads to drugs and that. (Swiping a move from Martin Amis’ Success, his messy downfall parallels Emma’s rise as a children’s novelist.) Like this year’s Oscar telecast, Hathaway is left compensating for a lackluster partner.
Though the mechanics of the plot, adapted by David Nicholls from his bestseller, conspire to humble him as he approaches middle-age, theirs is a one-sided love, even as the film maintains they’re soulmates. In truth, he’s just another compromise, a slightly more attractive option than Ian (Rafe Spall), a googly-eyed, spastic “comic” who spends far too many segments as her mismatched paramour.
Almost despite itself, One Day remains cosmic to watch, the effect of watching compressed lives superficially similar to imbibing the Up! Series in one marathon sitting. Nicholls’ storyline deserves credit for taking some nastily realistic turns, while Scherfig ensures the 20-plus segments are handled with variety and care, even if specific eras are hobbled by amusingly unimaginative song selections (“The Rhythm of the Night” for ’93, Fatboy Slim for ’00). But like Emma, it’s too often unaware of its true potential, content to settle for less than it deserves.