SAD, ROMANTIC, elegantly turned, a potential mainstream hit not too differently shaped from Love Story and yet not at all a commercial sellout. One Day, by the ever-rising director Lone Scherfig, is neo-classic filmmaking taking on a postmodern story. July 15, 1988: St. Swithin’s day. A significant day like Groundhog Day—how the weather behaves signifies how the weather will be for the summer to come.
It begins the morning after a sleepless night; two students are celebrating their graduation from the University of Edinburgh. Rich wastrel Dexter (Jim Sturgess) shares the bed of the working-class Emma Morley, played by the doe-eyed Anne Hathaway, using a British accent that would baffle Henry Higgins. Over the course of the next 20-something years, Emma and Dexter keep up a turbulent friendship. It’s almost a sleepover friendship, underscored by their attraction, their involvement with others, and the question of who has the upper hand.
In the 1990s, Dexter becomes a regularly televised embarrassment, hosting a TV dance show. Dexter’s parents try to conceal their well-bred contempt. Patricia Clarkson, as Dexter’s mother, shows where he got his sense of humor and why he needed to rebel. Emma tries to make it as a writer while toiling at one of those lousy Velveeta-pumping Mexican restaurants they have in London. She moves to a flat near Hackney’s “Murder Mile” with her boyfriend, a loyal but unemployable comedian Ian (Rafe Spall) she never can shake.
As the years pass, we see grotty London morphing into millennial wretched excess and thus to the embrace of diminished expectations in the 2000s.
There’s an edge to the film; Sturgess’ Dexter is not just a raffish Hugh GrantÐlike sot but a genuine wreck at his lowest ebb. Hathaway’s undeniable next-doorness and honest tenderness are easy to love. Likely One Day is meant as a women’s picture. But to the men in the audience, Hathaway here embodies what the Lou Reed song describes: Everything you had but could not keep.