Based on David Nicholls' bestselling 2009 novel, the addictive Netflix series follows an on-and-off, up-and-down relationship over two decades
If you don't choose Netflix’s new romantic epic One Day as your Valentine’s Day binge, you probably don't deserve to feel the happy fffwap! of Cupid’s bow in your heart. For that matter, whatever boxed chocolates you receive should be filled with ash.
Based on David Nicholls' 2009 bestseller, the series covers nearly 20 years in the relationship of Dexter (Woodall) and Emma (Mod). We follow the pair’s progress — and setbacks — across 14 episodes, most covering a single year each, and all commencing on the same date: July 15. That’s when the two first hook up in 1988, spending the night together after a day of giddy excitement as freshly minted graduates of the University of Edinburgh.
At times this narrative setup can feel like a gimmick, and annoyingly arbitrary — slicing two lives into neat segments, as if they were vegetables being mandolined. But Day transcends all that. When Emma quotes a line from Great Expectations, something clicks: Consider any life, Dickens wrote: “Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been . . . of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
The series captures that strange magic and makes it somehow real. Romantic destiny may not really exist, but that’s no reason not to believe in it.
Best not to give away too much plot, other than to say Dexter is callow and privileged, a few rungs below Saltburn, and not always picking up on his mother’s strong, useful hints that he ought to acquire a moral character, a spine or at least a few centimeters of psychological depth. Emma, on the other hand, is smart, artistic, ambitious, alert to world issues and awkwardly middle-class. She also has a deflective, smart-alecky sense of humor.
Day is basically The Way We Were for Generation Z.
Woodall has the more complex part, and certainly makes the most of it. In a sense, Dexter’s Mother sees her wish come true, but not in a particularly happy way: Battered by experience, he becomes ever more openly vulnerable, year by year. By the end he’s so touchingly wounded you wish someone would escort him to a hospital for the love-sick, where doctors perform only the gentlest triage.
Mod's role is more in the Emma Thompson tradition of witty, highly capable women who, because life and love are both perverse and unfair, have to struggle to get their due, but never lose their sense of fairness. If Emma had been the social climber in Saltburn, no one would have died and a new generation would have been established to flourish in the manse, with toys strewn around the nursery. Mod is funny, touching and — just to the degree that the role requires it — nurturing,
You wouldn’t say that she and Woodall have much erotic oomph together. But One Day — which was previously adapted into a 2011 movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess — might not have worked so well if they did. If anything, a haunting sense of distracted sadness often creeps into their intimate scenes, like a cat that has something on its mind but can't communicate what it wants.
The story at hand is more about longing than fulfillment, more about absence than union.
Near the end, the always literate Emma switches from quoting Dickens to Thomas Hardy. Let that be your tipoff.
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One Day debuts Thursday on Netflix.
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