One day should not be enough to describe this story. The plot follows a wealthy young man from the southern part of England who becomes enamored with a working-class woman from the north. This dynamic supposedly lasts for twenty years, with the man planning to spend his summer in France with his affluent friends from Marlborough. Meanwhile, the woman performs plays about suffrage in dusty village halls and listens to Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection before getting intimate with someone. The premise seems implausible, lacking in emotion, humor, and relevance to our modern times where class divisions are no longer as prevalent. I struggle to find a suitable word to describe how outdated this story seems.
However, when David Nicholls released his third novel in 2009, it was universally praised by all readers, including those who typically do not enjoy romantic comedies. The book was humorous and genuine, with a heartfelt and authentic tone. Unfortunately, the subsequent film adaptation was disappointing. However, let’s view it as a brief rebound in our romantic history, quickly forgotten so we can move on to this fantastic 2020s edition. This version is definitely worth keeping.
A limited series is ideal for the story of One Day, a love story that is both grand – spanning 20 years – and ordinary, all taking place on a single date, July 15th, St. Swithin’s Day. Each half-hour episode, except for the emotional finale, follows a day in the lives of Dexter Mayhew (played by Leo Woodall) and Emma Morley (played by Ambika Mod), starting in 1988 when they meet on the night of their graduation from Edinburgh University. This neatly divides the story into 14 easily binge-able episodes filled with nostalgia.
The structure helped me understand the true essence of One Day: the beauty in the mundane and the influence of reminiscence. As stated in Philip Larkin’s poem that begins this impeccable version, crafted by Nicole Taylor (Wild Rose) and produced by Nicholls: “Where else can we exist but in the passing of days?”
Each installment is a beautifully crafted and detailed scene. One particularly moving moment is on July 15th when Dexter, now struggling as a TV host, returns home to see his mother who is dying and ends up causing chaos. Even mundane objects like the old exercise bike in his childhood bedroom and the Bugsy Malone movie on the shelf evoke strong emotions. Another poignant memory is on a hazy summer day when Em and Dex pick up a bottle and a bag of Kettle Chips from the store, lay on Primrose Hill, and watch the sunset. And then there’s the cringe-worthy game of “Are you there, Moriarty?” where Dex accidentally hits his new, even more affluent girlfriend in the face with a rolled-up newspaper.
The supporting actors are exceptional, the historical accuracy is impressive, and the soundtrack is heavenly. When Rip It Up by Orange Juice starts playing, I am a wreck, easily moved to tears by a hamburger phone.
The success of the project relies heavily on Em and Dex, who must come across as both convincing and likable, both on their own and as a pair. They are exceptional individuals. Woodall’s charming confidence and sometimes off-putting yet ultimately forgivable privileged upbringing are portrayed perfectly; I easily forgive him countless times. His upper-class upbringing is neither downplayed nor glorified; it is an essential part of his character.
Ambika Mod (This Is Going to Hurt) is such a revelation that it is hard to believe this is her first lead role. Her Em is flinty, vulnerable, committed and relentlessly deadpan. On the hungover morning after they meet, they pass the time climbing Arthur’s Seat. “Is that a religious thing, not sleeping together?” Dex asks. To which Em explains drolly that her mum is a Hindu and her dad a lapsed Catholic: “God wasn’t involved.”
I must confess that my reaction to seeing Mod portray Emma was complex. I was excited because I had never seen someone who resembled me and lived the same life as me during that time period on screen before. However, this is also why it didn’t seem authentic. In reality, race (and class) did not operate in that way back then. To put it bluntly, white boys like Dex did not have romantic interest in brown girls like Em. I know this because I was one, even though I lived in Glasgow. In the first few episodes, the fact that Emma’s race was not mentioned bothered me. The reality is that Dex (and his parents) would have made unintentionally racist mistakes. And Em would have forgiven him.
However, my attention remained fixated. I found myself developing strong feelings for them. I grew to admire the beautiful, poetic structure of this tale, centered on the unlikely bond between two individuals, united by humor, shared cultural experiences, and the passage of time. Time that seemed to fly by in a blur. Suddenly, it was July 15th, 1991, and Dex and Em were skinny-dipping in Greece, and I was fully invested. As the story progressed to 2007, with Dex returning to Edinburgh (where I currently reside and am writing this), I found myself overcome with emotion and yearning to relive it all once more.