One Day is a generically sweet melodrama about the relationship between two people over the course of two decades, told with a gimmick: every scene takes place on July 15 of a different year. Sometimes July 15 is eventful, fraught with drama that affects their future; sometimes it's an ordinary, slice-of-life sort of day where nothing happens but hey, it was good to check in.
As gimmicks go -- I'm sorry, as narrative devices go -- this one isn't bad, and it probably plays even better in the novel (written by David Nicholls, who also adapted the screenplay). It breaks up what would otherwise be an ordinary "two people's relationship over the course of a couple decades" story. Even with that hook, though, there isn't much to it. We have two people, one very nice and noble, the other very flawed and in need of reform, and they impact each other's lives for a while. The end. It's what a Nicholas Sparks movie would be if it were aimed at grown women rather than teenage girls.
It's July 15, 1988, when Emma (Anne Hathaway), a bookish Scottish girl who dreams of being a writer, meets Dexter (Jim Sturgess), a spoiled, upper-class English brat. They've just graduated from the same college and might have even crossed paths at some point -- who can say for sure? Emma is mousy and Dexter drinks a lot, so there's probably a lot they both miss. In any event, they spend the evening together and become friends (maybe slightly more), and a bond is formed.
Emma moves to London the following year, into an apartment that smells like "onions and disappointment," to seek her fortune as a writer. In the meantime, she takes a job at a Mexican restaurant, where her goony but well-meaning co-worker, Ian (Rafe Spall), a would-be comedian, takes a shine to her. Meanwhile, Dexter finds success in the TV business, hosting a shallow late-night youth program and becoming a hard-partying hedonist.
There are several charming vignettes from Emma and Dex's on-again/off-again relationship, with Hathaway and Sturgess giving consistently engaging performances. Sturgess is sympathetic even when Dex's behavior is shoddy, and Hathaway is luminous as always. Danish director Lone Scherfig, following up her much more sophisticated coming-of-age comedy An Education, clearly loves both characters and wants us to feel likewise. In a movie that had a better story to tell and a deeper point to make, the combination of these actors and this director might be extraordinary. Instead, it's quite ordinary indeed -- an emotional workout, a couple instances of outright manipulation, and little payoff.