Reimagining ‘One Day’ for modern audiences

Nothing makes me feel more attached to a story than a sad ending. As a lover of romantic comedies, I have always appreciated when my expectations are subverted, and the couple that I had been rooting for befalls an unexpected and possibly tragic twist in their story’s conclusion. Few movies execute this as well as “One Day,” originally a novel that has been adapted into a movie and is now a limited series on Netflix. If you cannot tell by my first few sentences, I am issuing a massive spoiler warning for the rest of my review. 

The 2011 film version of “One Day,” starring Anne Hathaway and Tim Sturgess as Emma and Dexter respectively, rests firmly in a category of my comfort movies and TV shows, accompanied by “Normal People,” “Fleabag,” “Blue Valentine” and “Atonement.” If these also hold a special place in your heart, then I urge you to grab some tissues and leftover Valentine’s Day chocolates and settle in for a good cry. 

The film and limited series both follow Emma and Dexter from their meeting at university until their eventual marriage and Emma’s shocking and untimely death (massive spoiler, I warned you!). The passage of time is portrayed by revisiting the same date over the course of 20 years. The 2011 version is tonally somber and feels strangely similar aesthetically to the “Twilight” series, with cool blue tones defining the color scale. You feel from the first few shots that something is going to go amiss in the span of the story. Yet, after Dexter undergoes the loss of his mother, is cheated on and divorced by his wife and loses his career, it feels as if his three beats of torment have been completed, and the reward for coming out the other end a better person is Emma. There is a beautiful subtlety to the rhythm of the film, ensuring that even with the time period jumps from the mid-’80s to the early 2000s, the costumes do not distract from the advancement of the plot and the complexity of the central relationship. It is clear that Hathaway and Sturgess have a natural, flowing chemistry that allows the audience to become immersed in how they evolve with each other throughout the years and stay connected. Even though I have watched the film numerous times, I still find that the pacing is quick and entertaining, never halting the story for too long in one place at any time. I come back again and again because the characters are easy to watch in the sense that they feel familiar and friendly the minute they appear on the screen. Their conversations are natural and authentic, and the forgiveness and love they hold for each other are refreshing and melancholy all at once. 

I was surprised to see that Netflix was making a new version of this story, as the film still feels relatively recent, and well done at that. But I warmed to the idea after the casting of Leo Woodall, who starred on the last season of “White Lotus,” and actress Ambika Mod. Woodall brings a new genuine, friendly feeling to Dexter that Sturgess’ version lacked. Mod is a refreshingly diverse casting choice for this role, being of South Asian descent, and the series does an excellent job of creating space for her heritage to shape her character. 

The only glaring error I found upon reflecting on the 14-part series is that it leaned far too heavily into making the sets, costumes, hair and overall aesthetics fit into the stereotypes of the different years, which made the overall mood of the series too gimmicky and less authentic. Other than that, I thought that the casting and writing of Ian, played by Jonny Weldon, was close to unwatchable. While Ian is a difficult character to digest in any portrayal, Weldon’s choices and his enlarged role in the series were such a dramatic departure from the beautifully crafted relationship between Mod and Woodall that it felt completely extraneous. In the film, however, Ian is more awkward than he is aggravating and has a wonderful hand in healing some of the loose threads of Dexter’s grief. Whereas in the series, the entire cast reunites in an effort to comfort Dexter, and Ian comes across as an unwanted and bitter presence. 

In terms of what the series did well, and even better than the film version, the list is endless. I say this, though, from a lower bar than I would hold other projects to. At its core, the series is a Netflix original. While the story is beautiful, I do not expect the same quality and artistry that I do from other platforms. Making space for the series to touch you while tolerating some cheesiness is essential to this watching experience. With that being established, I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself enjoying the space for exploration that this format gave to the story. The beginning of Emma and Dexter’s relationship was afforded much more time to develop, and I found myself enjoying the smaller moments and details that the movie did not allow time for. To feel the length of the relationship and the twisting road it took them to arrive at a happy place made the loss of Emma much more devastating. More than that, it made watching Dexter pick up the pieces of his life more visceral and heartbreaking. 

The longer format of this series allowed for the story to be even more expansive and richly complex. While Dexter is more classically the one making the errors and struggling to correct his path in life, the series also shows different sides of Emma, which makes their union more harmonious and equal. Both Mod and Woodall were able to go farther and deeper than Hathaway and Sturgess, which allows the audience to feel more connected and invested in not just their relationship, but also who they are as individuals.

While the film will always hold a special place in my heart, this new series has broken down my hesitance around remakes. Delivering this story in a new way to a new generation of viewers was worthwhile and did not feel repetitive, but instead, felt like its own body of work and opened up the chance to showcase two fresh and vulnerable takes on this touching story. Even more, the series made its message incredibly clear: time is precious and fleeting, so know that change can come from you and not just happen to you. And if you love someone, take action.

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