Is Danish director Lone Scherfig creating a new genre of revisionist romantic films? Her three English-language films on the surface all appear to be mainstream romantic dramas with their soft-lighting, seductive soundtracks, appealing characters and warm ambiance. However, underneath the boy-meets-girl narratives are challenging and uncomfortable themes that seem designed to deliberately undermine romantic conventions. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) is about suicide, An Education (2009) is about a relationship between a teenage girl and an older man with dubious motives, and now One Day is about missed opportunities and failing to embrace the moment. Even Scherfig’s break-through film Italian for Beginners (2000), made under the stylistic restrictions of the Dogme 95 movement, features a lot of grief and death amid the various romantic storylines. While One Day is Scherfig’s least accomplished film, it still contains what is becoming her trademark blend of enticing film style and dark thematic undercurrents, resulting in a film that is both romantic and unsettling.
Adapted by And When Did You Last See Your Father? scriptwriter David Nicholls from his own 2009 novel, One Day is intriguingly structured. It tells the story of its two protagonists across twenty years by only depicting events that occur each year on 15 July. Inevitably some of the events that occur on that day are conveniently of monumental importance, but mostly the days are used to provide an impression of how the characters have progressed, or failed to progress, twelve months on from when we last saw them. This extreme elliptical device does result in two decades flying by very quickly. While the novel presumably dwelt on the significance of each day with more depth, in the film it does feel more like a series of snapshots designed to simply flag where we are at in the narrative.
The two protagonists are Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), who have an awkward encounter early in the morning on 15 July 2010 after their graduation and then spend the next twenty years navigating their resulting friendship. They are obviously attracted to each other sexually and romantically, but as One Day is a drama and not a screwball comedy, the audience are left uncertain if they will ever move out of the friend’s zone. A major problem with One Day is it struggles to maintain interest in whether or not this will happen, due to the unevenness of character development and presentation.
An immense amount of sympathy is established early on for shy and low self-esteemed Emma. On the other hand, Dexter comes across as obnoxious and self-absorbed and it’s difficult to see what Emma likes in him even as a friend. Scherfig knows how to make an audience empathise with theoretically dislikeable characters, as she demonstrated with the Lars Kaalund character in Italian for Beginners, but Dexter doesn’t have enough depth to make the audience care about what happens to him. Dexter’s flaws should make him the more interesting character but he’s not. Meanwhile Emma is largely reduced to his object of desire.
And yet, despite the patchiness (including an out-of-place Meet the Parents sequence involving a family game gone wrong) and the heavily signposted and melodramatic plot points, One Day concludes magnificently. The final scenes in the film significantly redeem a lot of what had come previously and distinguish it as a Lone Scherfig film rather than a slightly above average romance with a quirky approach to narrative. By colliding the past and the present through editing, Scherfig fills in a lot of the gaps about why Emma and Dexter continued to be in each other’s lives and how that will resonate in the future. By doing so, Scherfig does what she does best – slyly subverts the romance genre.
The sting in the tail is that One Day is not a film about the whims of fate, but a film about the disappointments and regrets that result from not acting on opportunities when they are presented and being blind to what is around you. It’s about squandering good fortune, wasting life pursuing trivialities, settling for second best and the cruelty of self-realisation coming later in life when it is needed much earlier. There are some beautiful moments in the final fifteen minutes or so of One Day, giving it a brilliantly melancholic resolution to an otherwise mild film.