Lone Scherfig’s new film One Day begins with a wordless prologue dated 2006: actress Anne Hathaway swims laps in a very blue pool and steers her bicycle through the backstreets of London while traffic noises provide modern counterpoint to the yearning violins in Rachel Portman’s bittersweet score.
Then the pages of a calendar flip backwards, and we’re introduced to a young man named “Dexter Mayhew” (Jim Sturgess) who is just entering the summer of his life. Barely in his 20s, “Dex” appears to have it all: he’s the darling boy of a prosperous London family, incredibly handsome and extremely charming.
Dex has just graduated from the picturesque University of Edinburgh, and he’s celebrating with a group of fellow-grads on the High Street. They’re drunk and ebullient, and when others begin to embrace, Dex suddenly finds himself partnered with a mousey girl with frizzy hair and big ugly glasses. But hey, he’s game, so he steers her back to her place for some nookie.
Then morning arrives—as it always does—and he finds the mouse is actually a quick-witted girl named “Emma Morley” (played by Anne Hathaway in the ugly duckling phase of the swan we already met on the London bicycle). Em’s accent immediately identifies her as a striver on scholarship, but even though he’s longing for escape, Dex is a gentleman, so he decides to stick around for a bit until she talks herself back to sleep.
And so begins the arc of Dexter Mayhew as he grows from a child of privilege to a man of substance in the span of two decades on the calendar and two hours on the screen.
Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say that Dex and Em are not intended to be star-crossed lovers like Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, or Tristan and Isolde, and this is made totally clear in the final chronological scene back in Edinburgh when Dex is with “Jasmine” (Emilia Jones) in the scene right before the final flashback that parallels the flash-forward at the very front.
So why am I, an avowed a feminist, so entranced by this film? Sure it was directed by a wonderful female filmmaker (Lone Scherfig), but what about the woman (Kristy Puchko) who posted a rant called “Why One Day is the Most Toxic Romance of the Year” on Jezebel? Kristy, I agree with everything you said 100%, and if I thought One Day was “a romance,” then I would follow your lead when you say: “I don’t come to review One Day; I come to eviscerate it.” But in this review—in my review—I am arguing that One Day is not, in fact, “a romance.”
Composer Rachel Portman creates epic film scores with lyrical leitmotifs that can be colored in as the plot requires (in this case from light to dark). The most familiar of these is probably her Oscar-nominated score for The Cider House Rules (still heard regularly on radio and television spots marketing the magic of Michigan).
Using music as a cultural clue helps us local One Day within a tradition of beloved Bildungsromanen (“Development Novels”) which their authors personally adapted for the screen, just as David Nicholls has done in this case. This list includes John Irving who received an Oscar when he wrote the screenplay for his novel The Cider House Rules (score by Rachel Portman) and Michael Blake who received an Oscar when he wrote the screenplay for his novel Dances with Wolves (with a score by John Barry who also won an Oscar for Wolves.) Alas, Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) was long dead when Sydney Pollack decided to adapt her memoir Out of Africa, but John Barry won an Oscar for that score too (as did screenwriter Kurt Luedtke). Each of these stories had romantic elements, but they were primarily epic tales about their primary protagonists.
Of course, there are films in which the relationship is primary and the protagonists are co-equals (think of the recent romantic drama Blue Valentine, as well as classics like An Affair to Remember, Bringing Up Baby, Roman Holiday, Shakespeare in Love, and The Way We Were), but One Day is not in this category. One Day is a coming-of-age story about Dexter Mayhew in which Emma Morley certainly plays an important role, but she’s only one of four critical females in his life.
It has frankly been a joy to watch Jim Sturgess develop on screen from the boy with the Beatles mop-top in Across the Universe to the ruffian in Fifty Dead Men Walking, and he exceeded all my (heavy) expectations here as Dex convincingly aged from his early 20s to his early 40s while burning a lot of emotional rubber along the way.
I have known real “golden boys” in both my personal life and my professional life, and even when I got to peek behind their façades, it was still difficult to empathize. Every time I watched a “golden boy” walk through a door that seemed open only to him (& those similarly endowed), I got a stomachache. But I think this is the first time I’ve ever walked through any of those doors wearing his shoes instead of my own, and the journey is extremely illuminating.
Look closely at this photo of “Young Dex” strolling around Paris with his mother:
Look at the provocative way “Alison Mayhew” (Patricia Clarkson) is dressed. We don’t get any backstory in the film (and the novel only adds a tiny bit more), but she clearly married “Steven Mayhew” (Ken Stott) for his money, and much prefers her son’s company to her husband’s. From the son’s POV, he’s won (“Oedipal triumph”), but in One Day—just like in real life—the women Dex fancies only want Mom’s good looks when also accompanied by Dad’s money.
On some level, Dex is always aware that he hasn’t actually earned his easy ride, and to her credit, Alison tries to warn him—oh so gently—not to take his good fortune for granted, but the world is telling Dex that he is entitled, so he throws caution to the wind and literally buries his anxiety in “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.” When Dex finally falls deeply in love, he’s already over 30 and even though his bride, “Sylvie Cope” (Romola Garai), has great beauty, family wealth, and social status, she isn’t able to provide emotional support to a man the world now considered “over the hill.”
Emma comes to his rescue, yes, but Emma “the best friend,” not Emma “the lover/the mate.” Despite what all the posters show, Sturgess and Hathaway have no physical chemistry (Sturgess’ most intense scenes are the ones with Clarkson), and the plot quickly resolves their romantic mismatch.
In the end, after a brief but tremendously affecting heart-to-heart with his father (!), Dex finally grows up and becomes a man, and summer turns to autumn. Sitting in the audience watching Dex on top of that hill with Jasmine, I cried like a baby.
Photo Credits: Giles Keyte/RANDOM HOUSE FILMS.