Life and fate: Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as Emma and Dexter in Netflix’s ‘One Day’. Image: Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

Love in the time of binge-watching

Netflix’s recent series is how ‘One Day’ was meant to be adapted
March 19, 2024

Most people would agree that the 2011 film One Day was a let-down. The adaptation of David Nicholls’s much-adored novel starred Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway as Dexter and Emma, who meet on their final day of university in 1988, nearly have a one-night stand and then spend the next decade pining after each other at all the wrong moments. The novel checks in with the pair on the same day each year—15th July—up until 2007. At the end, something shocking happens, which I won’t spoil here, that has divided readers since the book came out in 2009.

I’m not surprised One Day didn’t work as a film. Dex was too unlikeable, Emma too perfect. It also came in the middle of the bizarre cultural moment when people decided that Hathaway, a perfectly nice-seeming, beautiful woman who took her job seriously, was hateful for some reason. But the main problem, to my mind, was the film’s pacing. It tried to include too much—inevitable, with so many years to cover—and still ended up feeling thin. In a recent interview with Slate, the director, Lone Scherfig, admitted that a different format was probably more appropriate, saying, “I think it could work a lot better as episodic television.”

Enter Netflix. Their new adaptation of the book stars Leo Woodall, who you might recognise as the troubled British “nephew” on the last season of The White Lotus, and Ambika Mod, who was in This Is Going to Hurt. It is comprised of 14 episodes, and so has much more space to play with than the film did.

It is gorgeous. Everywhere the film failed, the television show succeeds. The film doesn’t manage to pull at your heartstrings until the very end, when the Big Tragedy comes, and so the lurch in tone feels wrong. The television series, however, is heartbreaking throughout. And it’s not just the sad events: the death of Dex’s mother, Emma’s despair at not pursuing her creative dreams. It’s the joyful stuff, too, that hurts. I found myself moved by the humdrum, maternal happiness of Emma’s friend Tilly, and by Dex and Emma’s brief but blissful period of living in Paris. The 14 episodes meant enough space was given to all the near-misses of their relationship, the subplots with their family and friends, and other romantic escapades, such as Emma’s ill-fated affair with the principal of the school where she teaches. And knowing the ending, I had several hours’ worth of agonising, but compelling, anticipation leading up to the episode in which it happens.

Everywhere the film failed, the television show succeeds

I’m not really exaggerating when I use the word “heartbreaking”. I found it curiously painful to watch. Maybe I’m just the perfect target audience for this show, at 31 years old. Emma and Dex might be older than me, but their story covers roughly the same period of life I have just been through. Friends are suddenly married, having children, settling down, and university feels both a long time ago and only yesterday. I look at photographs of myself and my peers from back then, and see that we’ve aged. I know when I look at them what the various joys and tragedies of their lives have been in the decade since, events that we could never have predicted when the photographs were taken.

But I don’t think it’s just my own sentimentality and stage of life talking here. It’s a genuinely well-made piece of work. The show belongs in the canon of great time-lapse television. In terms of how it made me feel, it reminded me of the classic BBC drama Our Friends in the North, which charted the lives of a group of friends from Newcastle over 31 years and nine episodes. Or even the documentary series Up, which began in 1964 and follows 14 people from around England through their lifetimes, checking in every seven years, from aged seven until the present.

It’s rare in the streaming age, where there is endless content, much of it of middling quality, that I have cause to believe that Netflix is a good thing to have happened to television. But One Day, on Netflix, is a perfect marriage of form and content. The way people tend to watch things there, in chunks of several episodes on the trot, usually over a concentrated time period, means that those who watched most likely saw Dex and Emma age all too quickly. You can and probably will rush through their lives; and seeing two people that you’ve come to love grow old so fast is a vertiginous feeling. Life, the show says so achingly well, is fleeting, and everything changes.