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One Day

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As Time Goes By

Love stories, like One Day, that endure the test of time


Director Lone Scherfig's One Day follows its two protagonists, Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway), over the course of two decades, from their time as young, idealistic students to adults dealing with the full reality of their lives. Adapted from David Nicholls' best-selling novel of the same name, One Day, however, only shows us one day of their lives each year. They first meet as undergraduates at the University of Edinburgh in 1988, have a romantic encounter on July 15 – St. Swithin's Day – and, although they choose friendship over romance, pledge to meet up on that same day every year. The film charts Dexter and Emma's experiences, loves, hopes and relationships over the years as they find success and failure in equal measure – and, just maybe, each other. Like other films that look at the grand sweep of a relationship, One Day moves back and forth between the close-up and the long shot, the single day and the decades-long glance back, to fully comprehend the evolution of love. Like so many other films before it, from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage to Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day, from Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, One Day understands that love takes time.

Two for the Road (1967)

Stanley Donen, while famous for being one of Hollywood's great musical directors (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town), also directed Two for the Road, a surprisingly daring drama which uses a non-linear narrative to examine a troubled 12-year marriage. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn play husband and wife Mark and Joanna Wallace. The story begins with a series of flashbacks, as Hepburn thinks back over her relationship with Finney, and specifically four road trips they took through France. We see how they fall in love, marry, have a baby, fight, cheat, and fight some more – but not in that order. Writing in the New York Times at the time of the film's release, critic Bosley Crowther said, “So erratic is the continuity [in] this helter-skelter film that it isn't quite clear ...where the past and coming events merge. ...But it doesn't really matter, because what the film has to say about the state of matrimony and the restlessness of modern husbands and wives is more in the jumble of details and the eccentricity of the montage than it is in the exposition of a rational development. The method is the message, as it were.” The movie makes the point that the order of events in a relationship is ultimately irrelevant – as long as you are able to take the right lessons from what happened and move forward.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Ingmar Bergman was never one to shy away from big questions, nor did he balk at plundering his own life for personal details to put in a movie. When he made Scenes From a Marriage, he had recently wed his fifth wife, Ingrid von Rosen, and was pondering what it takes for a marriage to work, how two people can continue to love one another and sustain a functioning relationship together. He was discouraged from embarking on the project by von Rosen, who allegedly felt it would not be successful; however, she was wrong. Made as a five-hour TV miniseries and then released theatrically as a three-hour film, Scenes from a Marriage was an enormous success, and found a very receptive audience. (The story goes that the streets were deserted when Scenes first aired in Sweden.) In six episodic chapters, with titles like “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug,” Bergman presents discrete incidents in the lives of a married couple – lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullman) and academic Johan (Erland Josephson) – after which the pair then discuss and analyze what happened in intense detail. (To add a little context, Ullmann was not only an actress but also Bergman's former lover and the mother of one of his children.) In the first segment, Marianne and Johan have been married 10 years, and look down somewhat on two friends of theirs who are having marital difficulties, saying, “That will never happen to us.” By the end of Scenes from a Marriage, it's a decade later, and the couple has divorced and are having an affair with each other, despite both being married to other people. In the final moment of the film, Johan declares, “I think I love you in my imperfect and rather selfish way. And I think you love me in your stormy, emotional way. In fact, I think that you and I love one another. In an earthly and imperfect way."  In his excellent essay written for the Criterion Collection, Philip Lopate writes that “after twenty years, the two have reached an accommodation, a wry understanding. Only at the end do we fully grasp that Scenes from a Marriage is one of Bergman’s sunniest and most hopeful constructions.” Despite Lopate's perspective, the impact of Scenes of a Marriage on Scandinavian life was startling: in the year after it aired, divorce rates almost doubled. Ironically, Bergman's marriage was not one of the ones to suffer; he stayed married to von Rosen until her death in 1995.

The Way We Were (1973)

While the 70s is known for its cinematic innovation, for his 1973 epic romance, The Way We Were, Sydney Pollock returned to the classic Hollywood romance. The movie boasts two of the period’s biggest stars –  Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford – as unlikely lovers. We first meet the two at an Ivy League university in the 30s.  Katie Morosky (Streisand) is a Jewish, working-class, Marxist activist who, while up for any social fight is socially invisible; Hubbell Gardiner (Redford) is the varsity athlete, entitled WASP dreamboat with whom all the girls are in love. Opposites, of course, attract: she is drawn to his handsome good looks and skill as a writer, while he warms to her for her fiery passion. They marry after World War II, but their relationship is always fraught, with the pronounced differences in their backgrounds and outlooks creating constant tension. Eventually, against the backdrop of Hollywood during the McCarthy blacklist era, they divorce. He is unfaithful to her during her pregnancy, and they ultimately realize that what made their passion burn bright also drove them apart. Despite meeting with a lukewarm critical reaction, Pollack's movie was and continues to be a popular favorite, a soapy romantic melodrama that is an irresistible guilty pleasure to many. Indeed one of the film’s great moments is the ending montage of loving moments seen from the distance of time and played to Streisand’s romantic anthem “The Way We Were.” Ironically, some of the people closest to the film were its biggest detractors. Writer Arthur Laurents, whose screenplay for the film was inspired by his own experiences as a student at Cornell in the 1930s and as a blacklisted screenwriter in Hollywood, was disappointed by how the film turned out, though a decade later he and Redford talked of collaborating on a sequel.

Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen is well-known for his love of Ingmar Bergman's work. Though films like Interiors and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (a comic reworking of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) are very directly influenced by the dour Swedish auteur, there is also a case to be made that Annie Hall is Allen's answer to Scenes from a Marriage. Like Scenes, Annie Hall is a highly personal deconstruction of a relationship, a film in which the line between fiction and the director's own experiences is consciously blurred. While Bergman cast his ex-lover Liv Ullmann as one of the leads in Scenes, Allen made a film about his failed affair with Diane Keaton – whose real name is Diane Hall – and audaciously cast Keaton and himself as the leads. (At one point, Allen and Keaton's characters, Alvy and Annie, try – but fail – to see Bergman's Face to Face, which stars Scenes' Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.) In addition, Annie Hall, like Scenes from a Marriage, looks at a relationship from the perspective of time, seeing the entirety and not just the emotional moments that make it up.  Rather than a straight take on a love affair, Annie Hall includes experimental, fantasy elements such as scenes where Alvy witnesses Annie's previous relationships and Annie is a bystander watching moments from Alvy's childhood. Having previously made silly, zany comedies, with Annie Hall Allen first employed the mix of humorous and dramatic elements that has come to define his best work. “I really feel it was a major turning point for me,” the director says in Woody Allen on Woody Allen. “I had the courage to abandon... just clowning around and the safety of complete broad comedy. I said to myself, 'I think I will try and make some deeper film and not be as funny in the same way. And maybe there will be other values that will emerge, that will be interesting or nourishing for the audience.' ...I really count Annie Hall as the first step towards maturity in some way in making films.”

Same Time, Next Year (1978)

Perhaps no film has a stronger structural kinship with One Day than Same Time, Next Year. This romantic comedy, which began life as a 1975 Broadway hit by Canadian playwright Bernard Slade, tells the story of two married lovers who meet up once every year. In 1978, Slade adapted the play for Robert Mulligan to direct, with the protagonists, East Coast accountant George and West Coast housewife Doris, played by Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn (who'd originated the role on Broadway). The hook of Same Time, Next Year is that for one day in every 365, George and Doris have a loving, communicative, mature relationship with each other in a Northern California inn – despite the fact that both have spouses and children they love back home. Over more than 20 years, they share the intimate details of their lives with each other, including the devastating impact of George's son dying in the Vietnam War. Urban Cinefile's Louise Keller writes of the film, “Their time together each year may be short, but it is intensely intimate. They share a birth, a death, a hippie phase, a difference in politics and even act as marriage counsellor for each other. Alda goes from love-struck to serious, while Burstyn changes from femme fatale to hippie and then conformist grandmother. There are quarrels, romantic reunions and sorrowful partings. There's a serious question and a serious answer. But overall, we are entranced by the connection between the two characters, and the resolution (after 26 years of meetings) is exactly what we would want. It's funny, sad, unexpected and moving. Just like life and its relationships.”

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

As with Same Time, Next Year, one can make the case that When Harry Met Sally acts as a kind of precursor to One Day: Rob Reiner's classic romantic comedy charts the progression of the relationship between two main characters, as they move from a misfiring first encounter to cautious friendship and, finally, romance. Covering a 12-year period in the lives of smart but neurotic New Yorkers Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan), When Harry Met Sally posits the idea that "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way." (Ironically, the movie was originally to end with Harry and Sally remaining friends, which was deemed to be a realistic conclusion – however, love won out in the end.) The title characters are heavily based on Reiner and Nora Ephron, the film's screenwriter. In the mid 1980s, while meeting to discuss another project, Ephron became fascinated by the stories that Reiner, then recently divorced from fellow director Penny Marshall, told her about his life as a single man, and thus the idea for the movie originated. For a film about a love affair that takes its time, it was fitting that the distribution of When Harry Met Sally embraced a similar idea: Columbia gave the film a platform release, putting it out in a small number of theaters and slowly generating word of mouth. The strategy worked: America fell head over heels with the movie, which took close to $100 million at the box office and now is a beloved, crowd-pleasing classic.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Perhaps no movie uses time to show the change and development of a relationship in such an ingenious manner as Groundhog Day. In Harold Ramis' inventive comedy, grouchy TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) finds himself forced to relive the same day over and over again: February 2 – or Groundhog Day – in the quaint Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. As he gets used to the idea that he's stuck in temporal purgatory, Phil begins spending his time working out how to seduce his pretty young producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), learning as much as possible about her so that he can present himself as her perfect man. Inevitably, despite months of effort to get her into bed, it never quite works. Ultimately, after a number of dead ends, Phil refocuses his attention and instead tries to get the most out of what February 2 in Punxsutawney can offer: he saves the life of a choking man in a restaurant, catches a boy who falls out of a tree, helps three old ladies with a flat tire, and learns to play piano and make ice sculptures. Of course, by bettering himself Phil becomes somebody that Rita is actually interested in; he has lived with their relationship long enough to be ready to make it a reality. In his “Great Films” essay on Groundhog Day, Roger Ebert writes, “Slowly, inexpertly, Phil begins to learn from his trial runs through Feb. 2. Ramis and [screenwriter Danny] Rubin in an early draft had him living through 10,000 cycles, and Ramis calculates that in the current version he goes through about 40. During that time, Phil learns to really see himself for the first time, and to see Rita, and to learn that he loves her, and to strive to deserve her love. He astonishingly wants to become a good man. ...There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, "When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel." The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

The title reveals everything we need to know about the story structure of writer Richard Curtis' charming romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. We see the major events in the film play out in chapters revolving around five church ceremonies devoted to honoring love or death, and in the process witness the awkward development of a love affair between Charles (Grant), a hapless, stuttering Englishman, and the lovely, sassy American Carrie (MacDowell). This way of constructing the narrative is simple yet brilliant: not only do these ritualistic events organically bring all the film's principal characters together, but also the inherent nature of weddings and funerals heighten people's emotions and prompt them to consider the larger questions in life, such as “Who do I want to spend the rest of my life with?” In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin praised the way Curtis and director Mike Newell make the movie's novel narrative structure work: “In a feat of daring gamesmanship, they confine their film's central love story to the events described by the title, veering off only occasionally to nearby hotels or shops for wedding-related gambits. That conceit would seem strained if it didn't prove so unexpectedly graceful and inspired.” Four Weddings and a Funeral further set itself apart from other romantic comedies by having two central characters who are anti-marriage. Charles is terrified of commitment, and by the end of the film Carrie is a divorcee; when they finally get together, Charles “pops the question” by asking, “Do you think... you might agree not to marry me? And do you think not being married to me might maybe be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?” Not coincidentally, Curtis – who based the characters in the movie on his group of friends -- has for many years been happily not married to his partner Emma Freud, with whom he has three children.

5x2 (2004)

In the early 2000s, there seemed to be a trend of filmmakers challenging the audience by having their movies play out in reverse. Christopher Nolan's Memento kicked things off, while Gaspar Noé's harrowing Irreversible followed in its footsteps shortly afterwards. In 2004, the innovative enfant terrible of French cinema, Swimming Pool director François Ozon, used this narrative conceit to extremely poignant effect in 5x2. Ozon's movie breaks down the relationship between married couple Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) into five chapters, starting from when they meet to sign divorce papers at their lawyer's office and progressing back to the moment at which they first fall in love. It is a cruel irony that a film about such a fundamentally sad subject as a failed marriage should have a “happy ending.” “When a love affair comes to an end and you reflect back on it, you concentrate essentially on the most recent events, those that culminated in the break-up,” said Ozon, discussing the film. “So starting at the end and working gradually backwards to the first encounter seemed like a good way of attaining a true, lucid reading of a couple's story. As we go back in time, the form becomes lighter, almost idealized. I wanted the audience to see the range of different emotions two people experience in the course of their life together: indifference, disgust, dread, jealousy, rivalry, closeness, attraction… I also wanted each episode to reflect a different style of cinema. ...On set, my joke was: 'We're starting with Bergman, we'll end with Lelouch.'” Interestingly, the French DVD release of the film offers an alternate version of the film, 2x5,which inverts the order of the events, with the additional reinstatement of some scenes deleted from 5x2.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain gives the epic treatment to the tragic love story of two closeted gay cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who struggle to maintain some semblance of a relationship over the course of 20 years. Ennis and Jack's tempestuous affair begins in 1963, when the two young men are working together herding sheep on a ranch in Wyoming. However the knowledge that they can never be open about their love for each other prevents them from staying together or being able to maintain an emotional closeness. They go their separate ways: Ennis marries his sweetheart, Alma Beers (Michelle Williams), and Jack weds rodeo rider Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). However, though it is frustratingly infrequent, they find ways to see each other and be alone together. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not just a simple affair carried on over a summer, but is a love story that defines its lovers, their worlds, and their lives. In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman praised how Lee's film transcended the sexual orientation of its characters to resonate with all audiences: “From the opening scene of semiconscious cruising to the final scene of ultimate bereavement, Lee's accomplishment is to make this saga a universal romance. Brokeback Mountain is the most straightforward love story — and in some ways the straightest — to come out of Hollywood, at least since Titanic.” In the New York Times, Stephen Holden reinforced this opinion, stating that “Brokeback Mountain is ultimately not about sex (there is very little of it in the film) but about love: love stumbled into, love thwarted, love held sorrowfully in the heart.” On its release, Brokeback was a huge success for distributor Focus Features: it took over $175 million at the box office, gained rave reviews from critics, and won Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (for Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) and Best Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla) at the Academy Awards.

More From Focus Features:

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One Day Timeline
Twenty Years, One Day
Our special One Day interactive timeline looks back at Emma and Dex's lives during 1988 - 2007.

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