“Whatever happens tomorrow, we’ve had today.”
That quote could very well be the answer to the meaning of life. The future is a construct in a constant state of flux—it’s never known and our dreams are often never fully met. But the concept of today is something we can control. What we do at the present is at the mercy of our hearts’ content. Whatever may happen with the people we’re with should never have bearing on the love, fun, or absolute happiness we are experiencing right now, with or without them. There will always be regret and the guilt that comes with it, though, so all we can hope is that we learn from mistakes and realize life is short. We should keep those we love close no matter what.
These sentiments are a huge part of Lone Scherfig’s One Day, adapted by David Nicholls from his own novel. The British proverb Jim Sturgess’ Dexter tries to remember also plays a role:
“St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare”
He speaks the poem while wrapping his arms around Anne Hathaway’s Emma on the day of their graduation in 1988. The day is July 15th—St. Swithun’s Day, of course—and although they have gone to school together, this is the first day they’ve officially become acquainted. The two eventually find themselves in her flat after a whirlwind day of champagne and frivolities. About to engage in a drunken act of lust, cooler heads somehow prevail to spark a friendship the two will cherish for over two decades to come. Their bond is seemingly indestructible, their love and respect for one another its most appealing trait. But twenty years is a long time and for two attractive Londoners lost in unrequited love, it can be a lifetime of disappointment.
And as the story begins on July 15th, it continues through the calendar years forever stuck on that fateful day. The title, One Day, then becomes both a prediction of these two friends finally finding each other ‘one day’ as well as the gimmick at the film’s foundation. It’s literally two lives in a day, spread out through the good times and the bad as Dexter and Emma evolve into adults. Unfortunately for both, however, their futures are not quite as bright as the aspirations of youth hoped. She’s found no traction in a career as a poet, falling onto the fast-track management program at a London Mexican restaurant instead. He has found fame as a late-night television announcer, his success coming at the price of a public’s revulsion, a constant state of inebriation, and emptiness.
We watch the phone calls and meet-ups that fall specifically on this day annually. The date becomes a harbinger for joy as well as cruelty, their aging full of tragedy and hope. Emma slogs through her stint as a waitress, achieves a new degree to teach, and never lets go of her dream to become a professional writer; Dexter descends into an abyss of empty sex and hung-over mornings, sleepwalking through his mother’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer and his father’s (Ken Stott) depression. He goes through a steady stream of attractive models while his star is at its peak; she tells herself she is alone and not lonely, her only opportunity for romance resting with a middling comedian named Ian (Rafe Spall) who loves her with a strength she knows she’ll never be able to reciprocate.
So the years move on, romances are begun, romances end, babies are born, and parents die. The constant through it all comes from the knowledge that when Dexter and Emma get to their lowest point, the other is only a phone call away for consoling. But time changes these two irrevocably and eventually opens their eyes to see the person opposite them is no longer the one from their past. In a line that seems trite on paper but absolutely resonate in its delivery by Hathaway, she chokes, “I love you Dex, I really do. I just don’t like you anymore.” It is a silent slap to the face and Sturgess stands in stunned disbelief, the truth to those words impossible to forgive. Life goes on; people change. Again, though, no matter the end, there will always be the years before it to remember fondly—if they allow themselves to cut through the pain.
Scherfig maneuvers through the years deftly, getting the performances from her leads that are necessary for the film’s success. I don’t care how many Brits complain on the internet about how casting an American in the literary shoes of their beloved Emma is unforgivable: she is perfect for this role. Is her accent up to snuff for the part of England she’s from? I’m not one to pass judgment on such things. What I can say with certainty is that she gets the emotions right, portraying the mousey girl without a shred of confidence just as well as the gorgeous woman possessed with faith in herself she becomes. The chemistry with Sturgess is palpable, their friendship believable at every turn. We know before they do that a love stronger than is let on exists and we hope one day it’s let out.
Nicholls’ story is wrought with love and loss and all the clichés associated with both. Somehow, though, I never felt anything less than absolute truth. A happy ending is deserved, especially after the near misses and unintentionally mean-spirited mistakes made, but the form of such joyous, bittersweet clarity may not come in the package you expect. Emma’s question in bed starts it all after the duo decides not to sully whatever it is they’ve created together by awkward sex with heads swimming in alcohol. Dexter relays St. Swithun’s poem and she responds in kind with, “If it doesn’t rain, can we do something, me and you?” I’ll bet neither saw the journey to come or the series of rainless July 15ths on the horizon—the one that is drenched in precipitation spent apart despite longing for the other. Their souls came together that day and never let go.