Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their university graduation. We see them every year on the anniversary of that date – July 15th. Emma is smart but success doesn’t come quickly for her, whereas for Dexter, success and women come very easily. Through the years they grow apart as their lives take different directions and they meet other people. But as they grow apart from those other people and their lives start taking opposite directions again, Emma and Dexter find that they belong with each other.
Messing with time is a funky thing. The Doctor would have us believe it’s all wibbly wobbly and very dangerous, yet storytellers have been playing with it for as long as stories have been around. For those that craft the stories, it’s one thing to span decades in a novel to convey the course of a human life, but a whole other thing to do it in film. This is part of the reason why so many of these broad-scoped movies started out as books. Not every filmmaker is as patient as Richard Linklater and willing to naturally age his actors in real time (re: Boyhood). You have to believably age your subjects on screen, and there’s only so much makeup can do. Spastic beard growth or a change in fashion (especially hairstyle) are the typical ways filmmakers offer up the visual clues that signal the passage of time. And that’s the easy part! How do you effectively condense a lifetime of passion, struggles, and love in under two hours of visuals? Well, you need a conceit or gimmick to structure the whole thing. More often than not, the very title will give it away. In 28 Hotel Rooms, two forlorn lovers enjoy a lusty sporadic romance when they rendezvous in random hotel rooms across the country, other romantic partners and even children be damned. We only ever see them in the confines of a hotel. (28 Hotel Rooms is great, by the way, and also on Netflix, but perhaps we’ll talk about that one another day). (500) Days of Summer chronicles the doomed relationship between a hopeless romantic and a carefree manic pixie dream girl, randomly skipping through time to show us the full year and a half span.
One Day (now on Netflix) offers up a titular gimmick, giving us snapshots of a relationship one day a year for 23 years. Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) meet on their graduation day from the University of Edinburgh on July 15, 1988. It’s St. Swithin’s Day, which to the best of my knowledge is something exclusively reserved for British people. For everyone else, it’s just July 15. But for Dexter and Emma July 15 is so much more, if not, everything. Their chemistry is immediately electric, even if its alcohol-laced and infused with the glee of graduation. You watch them interact and feel a regretful pang of nostalgia and think, “How sweet…”
One Day is one of those movies that trickled under my radar when it was first released in 2011, based on the book from 2009. I had seen the preview, thought it looked interesting, and made a note somewhere. But my level of interest waned when it actually came out and I never got around to seeing it until now. Gotta love Netflix for settling missed chances.
One Day was developed by Random House Films, a book-to-film sub-unit which is part of Penguin Random House book publisher. It’s basically an outlet for deftly turning their books into movies to make more money. To do that, they work with Focus Features, a production company that I hold in high esteem. They’ve worked on a lot of really great movies in recent years: Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brick, Hollywoodland, The Kids Are All Right, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Moonrise Kingdom, A Place Beyond the Pines, and The World’s End. Perhaps the most important for the sake of this article, though, isAtonement. In much the same way as Atonement, One Day features a somewhat offhand romantic encounter that sets off a series of events that ripples across time. And it’s not really a super happy one. Everything in One Day traces back to Dexter and Emma’s chance meeting, imbuing their timelines with unnatural importance. And I also mention Atonement to draw even more parallels: this is not really a happy story. The entire conflict of the movie rests on the tension of the viewer wanting this couple to actually get together. This is Atonement without the meta ending mixed with a less literal version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s meeting in the middle principle (more on that comparison later).
Even though Dexter and Emma are the same age and graduate together, they never really vibrate on the same frequencies. Dexter is a little boy who hopes to stay that way. Emma is a young woman so focused on growing up that she doesn’t let herself grow. They’re stunted in opposite ways. Emma is a quiet and book-smart; idealistic but self-serious. Dexter is an old-money playboy wildchild.
Post-college, Emma’s dreams of being a writer die a little bit more with each table she waits on at a local Mexican restaurant. Those dreams wither even further as she begins dating a groaningly bad stand-up comic with terrible hair. Despite this being in the late-80’s, early 90’s, it’s a strangely topical state of being for a twenty-year old to be in: lost and adrift in the sea of under-employment while dreams remain unfulfilled. Welcome to the 21st century!
Meanwhile, Dexter pinwheels into a life of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, hosting late night shows with enough sexy girls and glitter to stock a Katy Perry tour. But Dexter peaks too early; all the drugs and lack of meaningful relationships leaves him despondent and depressed, especially after his mother succumbs to cancer. Dexter is the irritating charmer and Emma is the ugly duckling waiting to blossom. Dex can be smashingly obnoxious and downright rude, even to Emma who is supposed to be his best friend. Dexter is in a state of arrested development, perpetually boyish but charming enough to get by from other people’s kindness. It works for him long enough to get a wife and child before his career peters out into nothingness, leaving him lost.
Sure enough, Emma finds her stride around the time that Dexter falls off his horse (when his stereotypically scruffy beard wills itself into existence). They talk for the entire first half of the movie about their “friendship” until they break it off only to reconnect several years later. Its worth nothing that everything leading up to this point is a bit painfully romantic, saccharine even. Emma tries to play it aloof, teasing Dexter, but we all know she’s smitten with him. Even he knows it. All the while, he’s acting all too cool for school and whatnot. She’s madly in love with him against her better judgment. He loves and appreciates the fact that she represents the only meaningful relationship in his life. But because their awkward, nearly sexual first encounter set a peculiar tone for their entire relationship.
Here’s where the Benjamin Button parallels begin to kick in.
You might remember Benjamin Button as that one in which Brad Pitt plays a creepy old Gollum baby that grows younger over time into a normal man until he shrinks and shrinks into a progressively younger baby until…bloop. He and his childhood female friend reconnect several decades into their lives, when they “meet in the middle”. She’s grown into a beautiful woman and has matured enough to let her former fascination with his condition blossom into all out romantic love. It certainly helps that he’s gone from wrinkly baby to one of the handsomest men to ever walk the face of the planet. Lucky for her, it wasn’t much of a stretch. She grows older and he grows younger and they meet in this perfect Goldilocks zone of bliss for a short period of time. It’s their own personal oasis.
One Day offers up a similar blissful reconnection of our heroes Dexter and Emma. A lot of movies have a hinge on which the entire story rests. Whichever direction the story bends will reveal to the viewer not only the Nature of the story itself, but the soul of its creator. Does the plot continue to frustrate the wishes of its audience or fulfill those wishes outright? Aka. Is the author a cynic or an optimist? In One Day, Dexter finds himself visiting Emma in Paris. She’s there as a successful author, enjoying the lavish life that only artistic people can have in a city like that. She’s at her zenith. He’s at his nadir. Dexter’s wife has divorced him (after cheating on him for quite some time) and she maintains primary custody of their only child, a daughter. He’s grown his sad beard to prove all his sadness to us. He visits Emma hoping to finally sweep her off her feet, something he should have done years ago. Only now has he matured and gotten enough perspective to really appreciate her. We quickly realize that Emma is in a relationship, and happy, but her love for Dex still lingers under that tightly cropped pixie cut. She turns him away and he takes a sad walk down the banks of the Seine. That’s where the hinge of the movie rests. You wonder, “Are they ever going to get together?” all the while hoping that she’ll come running after him.
I’ll stop with the recaps here and finish by saying that this movie offers its fair share of surprises, some of which can hit you like a truck. Even though much of the dialogue, particularly early on, feels like an overly scripted play, the writing really settles into itself by the end to convey what looks and feels like a very natural relationship between two human beings. As one tertiary character points out, Emma loves Dexter so much and in turn, she makes Dexter better. It’s the kind of love we all ought to aspire to, really. But will this love ever truly be fulfilled? If there’s one thing working against love for us, it’s time. Even the greatest of lovers can be bested by timing.
Review from Snippets