Review: “One Day” starring Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall

A woman and man kissing.

Sadness can be beautiful. There can be grandeur in melancholy, poetry in tears. Because depression is a mental health menace (Britain for example is second only to Uzbekistan in suffering from poor mental health) we’d rather not talk about this. An appreciation of the somber side of life doesn’t go well with a dose of Prozac.

Hence, “One Day” is refreshingly different: it is a portrait of a romance but it is painted in generally dark colours. There is regret, memory, tears, bitterness, and yet it is beautiful.

The premise is straightforward: each episode takes place on July 15, Saint Swithin’s Day. It begins in 1988 and ends in 2007. The main characters are Emma (played by Ambika Mod) and Dexter (Leo Woodall). They meet at a University of Edinburgh graduation ball; both are celebrating completion of their studies.  At first glance, they do not appear to be naturally suited. Emma is studious, bookish, and from a working class background. Dexter is a child of privilege and a party animal; he mainly coasts through life thanks to his charm and good looks.

Mod and Woodall make this unlikely romance work. We believe from the get-go these characters are completely in love with each other. There is an easiness of interaction between them. They banter naturally.

Furthermore, much of their performance is beyond words: it lay in facial expressions and in their eyes. It is as if the actors genuinely feel the emotions flowing from the script. There are scores of big budget features and Oscar winning performances which are not nearly as effective.

Despite their obvious attraction and passion, Dexter and Emma have a chronic inability to be together. After leaving university, Dexter becomes a television presenter. Although Emma has hard-won academic credentials, she languishes for a time as a server in a restaurant. Dexter in particular is maladroit; for example, he offers Emma a tip while visiting her restaurant with his latest paramour in tow.  The programme provides subtle digs at Britain’s class system via scenes like this. The story makes us feel that Emma’s path should be easier and Dexter should not have had quite so much handed to him on a silver platter.  However, there is a change in the weather, the winds of fate blow them together and pull them apart.  There are episodes in which one or the other is absent. 

This lack is a master stroke: love can be most felt in a void. There is a scene in which Dexter stares at a ceiling in the darkness and is reminded of a night that he spent with Emma.  He laughs involuntarily; his nervous titter conveys his longing.  The realism is remarkable: love affairs are generally not straightforward. There is a lot of crashing into brick walls, arguments, and unresolved issues. Emma and Dexter’s story is completely believable because they make bad choices which have awful consequences. They fight and make up. They struggle. But is love without turbulence merely a fiction? As such, fiction that portrays love that is not easy to attain or maintain may resonate with greater truths.

Also, I am generally not a fan of portrayals of sex on screen; as with films like “Basic Instinct” it often is mere titillation in the service of marketing. “One Day”’s scenes of passion work precisely because they mainly focus on the characters’ faces; we do not see them fully nude. Ms. Mod’s visage in particular shows pleasure but also the explosion of love long suppressed and its realisation. According to the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek, a fantasy realised is a nightmare.  These scenes indicate that it may not always be so.  Rather, it can be the expression of feelings which are beyond the descriptive power of words.

The series also masterfully handles time: 1988 may feel to some as not being terribly long ago, yet since then there have been many remarkable changes.  We follow developments in music and technology: the soundtrack provides the tunes which inhabit the years.  At one point, Emma receives a gift of a Nokia phone; it has a extendable antenna and black and white LCD screen.  She makes it clear this is an extravagance; this little touch tells us much about where we are. 

Similarly, when Emma sits down to write her first book, she does so in front of a computer running Windows 3.1 and with a cathode ray tube screen. I do not recall any mention of the internet except for a brief reference to email. It may have served the narrative for it to take place before the advent of widespread social media. The story probably would have been less effective if Emma and Dexter followed each other on Instagram, and thus had less need to “catch up”.

Many reviews have singled out Mod’s performance: there is no doubt she is the heart of the series.  However, Woodall deserves credit for exploring loss, grief, and the sheer beauty of desperate sadness that Dexter feels from being without Emma.  Dexter learns slowly what he instinctively knew from the first moment: Emma is the love of his life.  When he is without her, he tries to fill the void with alcohol, drugs, and parties.  Nothing inhabits the chasm in his soul.  Without her, he stumbles and falls in the dark.  In romantic dramas, love is often exemplified by flowery expressions, a bouquet left on a doorstep, and the ring of wedding bells. In “One Day”, it comes from the knowledge that Dexter is only whole when he is with Emma (and vice versa). With her absent, memory becomes as real to him as the present day. 

“One Day”’s writers knew when to stop.  It concludes precisely when we are certain of the future and requires no further embellishment. We remain with melancholic delight and painful rapture. 

The worst thing that could happen is if the writers, spurred on by the success of this series, felt tempted to write a sequel. We do not need this tale to be extended; that may not be narratively possible. Furthermore, a repeat of a similar storyline is unlikely be as satisfying. I would urge Netflix to let Emma and Dexter’s tale stand alone. It will be all the greater, and worth more rewatching because of its singular sad beauty.

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