Though anchored by its appealing leads and directed by Lone Scherfig with customary snap and polish, “One Day” rather too dutifully chronicles the 20-year relationship between two smart, attractive Brits, charting the incremental shifts from flirtation and friendship to hard-won commitment. On a moment-by-moment basis, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess make this long-arc love story viable, sometimes even vital. But the structural conceit proves more reductive than expansive, the big picture too overdetermined to really sweep the viewer away. It’ll do well in ancillary one day, but theatrically, Focus will rely on Hathaway to win over a modest arthouse niche.
Indeed, the actress seems to have been chosen more for her Stateside commercial appeal than her natural affinity for the role; while she acquitted herself well in the British costume drama “Becoming Jane” (2007), Hathaway at first feels slightly miscast here as Emma Morley, whose Yorkshire background comes with a particularly tricky accent to master. But the thesp’s quick intelligence and inner spark assert themselves in no time, making the bookish Emma a shrewd foil for Dexter Mayhew (Sturgess), the rakish charmer with whom she spends a chaste but intimate evening in her U. of Edinburgh flat.
That fateful one-night quasi-stand takes place July 15, 1988. The next scene is set on July 15, 1989, as Dexter helps Emma move into her new London digs, their easy banter making it clear they’ve become best friends. A year and a scene later, Emma is slaving away aimlessly at a Mexican restaurant while Dexter enjoys a more glamorous summer in Paris with his mother (Patricia Clarkson). July 15, 1992, finds the duo vacationing on the Brittany coast, with Emma drawing strict boundaries that Dexter is all too willing to violate, as becomes clear in a skinny-dipping episode that comically backfires.
And so the film goes, skipping dexterously, so to speak, from one year to the next until the present day, its story coalescing in scraps of narrative and slivers of feeling. While Emma struggles to make something of her writerly ambitions, Dexter becomes a famous TV personality, his boozy celebrity lifestyle driving a wedge between him and his loved ones. He navigates an endless series of girlfriends, eventually marrying and having a child with upper-class Sylvie (Romola Garai), while Emma tries to settle down with Ian (Rafe Spall), a good guy she doesn’t love. For all the many ups and downs they must endure before (and after) their magic moment, Dex and Em are clearly destined for one another.
To put it another way, they are captives of a rigid chronological schema devised by screenwriter David Nicholls, somewhat too faithfully adapting his deservedly popular 2009 novel. The book’s more contrived developments — the parallels and contrasts drawn between the two at various life stages, the recurring dramatic significance of July 15 — were lent conviction by the author’s lively, perceptive prose, his ability to fill out each snapshot with psychological detail and background texture. Nicholls’ script more or less distills the essence of each chapter in a series of tight, reasonably well-shaped scenes, but a crucial element of depth and spontaneity is missing. Time, one of the story’s key subjects, turns out not to be on the film’s side.
This places a considerable burden on the lead actors to express Dexter and Emma’s rich interior life as well as their essential rightness for one another, which they pull off with aplomb. Sporting a what-me-worry grin that tells only half the story, Sturgess nails his portrait of an irresponsible party animal whose 15 minutes of fame leave him in serious need of redemption and detox. If Hathaway seems a less obvious fit for Emma, the fact that she’s playing the more likable, dependable character in the equation quickly gets the viewer on her side.
Like Hathaway, Clarkson projects such a familiar down-home American attitude that one initially has trouble buying her as a Brit, though her performance makes up in emotional truth what it may lack in linguistic precision. Supporting cast is excellent all around; Ken Stott reveals shades of tenderness beneath a gruff exterior as Dexter’s father, while Garai and Spall deliver sympathetic, perfectly judged turns as the other girl and guy, respectively.
Scherfig’s follow-up to her ’60s-set “An Education” finds her again incisively exploring the London of the past, albeit the much more recent past. Benoit Delhomme’s fine widescreen lensing captures a city of cramped living quarters, crummy local dives and pulsing nightclubs, favoring more attractive, postcard-like views of Paris and Edinburgh in key sequences.
Rachel Portman’s treacly score aside, the soundtrack is a bit too fastidious in piling on the ’90s hits; a similar attentiveness governs Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costume choices, right down to the “Chinese-style affair of rich blue silk” Nicholls describes Emma as wearing to a friend’s wedding. Thesps’ wardrobe, hair and makeup pull off the illusion of subtle aging, despite Hathaway’s occasionally over-conspicuous changes in coiffure. Titles indicating the passing of each year are in line with the classy production package.