Even if it never makes justice to the book it's based on (the eponymous novel written by David Nicholls), One Day is an often delightful romance powered by pure star wattage and a great - albeit slightly gimmicky - concept. The film follows the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) over the course of two decades, but does so by showing what they do on the exact date they met. We see them grow from awkward college graduates to decently rounded adults; they survive destructive relationships, family tragedies, divorces, career and country changes etc. and the one thing that remains constant throughout is their love for one another.
Perhaps the novel's reach is a bit too ample to turn it into a small romantic comedy (it certainly would've been wonderful as a miniseries that took longer to flesh out Em and Dex better) because as it is, we often have a hard time knowing why the characters do what they do. Even if they never become mere archetypes - he of the fun-loving lothario and she of the obsessive control freak - we feel cheated, like we could've benefited more from knowing what they do on the dates we don't get to see.
Directed with a precise hand by Lone Scherfig (who follows the joyful style she used in An Education) the film has moments of marvel as well as scenes that seem to drag forever. Fortunately most flaws can be overlooked because of the performers. Sturgess is unusually passive, almost lacking in the exuberance needed to turn Dexter into a character we could hate and then fall in love with, however his quiet performance reveals that Dexter is a man who never knows himself fully (his scenes with Patricia Clarkson, who plays his mom, are violently delicate).
Hathaway - who sadly never mastered the required British accent - is all smiles and wide eyed contempt as Emma. As usual, Hathaway grabs a simple character and layers it with the kind of star quality few performers can add (only Julia Roberts lights up the screen with the same ease) while keeping a deep humanity that reaches to you beyond the screen. The film is by no means perfect (although the ending might just leave you weeping) but it works because of its utter sincerity. Few films nowadays are so straightforward about breaking your heart.
The spies are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington as young agents trying to catch a deranged Nazi surgeon in the 1970s. Their mature versions are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds respectively (in a quite good casting decision). They all come together in their old age to settle a secret they've been living with for decades, the film then uses flashbacks to show us what marked and bonded them forever.
The main issue with the film is how Madden tries to trick us, only to then reveal how entire scenes are nothing but lies. This never works because in the film's context - which most certainly isn't an artistic exercise a la Antonioni - all the scenes seem to be fact based. His idea of toying with perception is indeed respectable but the execution is sloppy and often causes confusion (did we see right or were we dozing off mid-screening?).
Mirren is fantastic as usual but the best in show honor goes to Chastain who plays her character with an angsty vitality one would only attribute to someone like, well, Mirren. She conveys such a damaged past that we only have to see in her eyes to understand where she's coming from and why she's doing what she does. Few performances are this magnetic and exciting, anyone looking for a new action heroine, take note.
One Day ***
The Debt **½