It’s not often that a limited series adaptation actually improves on the film that inspired it, especially when the original starred the great Anne Hathaway. Somehow, however, Netflix’s One Day does just that, reimagining Lone Scherfig’s 2011 romance as a gorgeously shot 14-episode series starring I Hate Suzie Too actress Ambika Mod and The White Lotus scene stealer Leo Woodall. If the pair’s aching, simmering chemistry doesn’t reduce you to a puddle of tears, rest assured that the wrenching story certainly will.
One Day started off as a bestselling novel by David Nicholls before Scherfig adapted it, and regardless of the medium, this is a story steeped in sentimentality. From its familiar, sweeping score to its stunning European locations, Netflix’s retread both embraces and enhances the allure of Scherfig’s 2011 adaptation. (Nicholls himself served as one of the executive producers on the series as well.) The expanded format also allows for deeper storytelling, making each relationship feel far more nuanced and each emotional beat just a little more impactful as a result.
Things kick off in 1988, during grad night at the University of Edinburgh. Emma has harbored a huge crush on Dexter for years and said nothing, and although he won’t admit it, Dexter has been quietly watching her, too. Things heat up when the two find themselves back at Emma’s apartment, but as interested as both parties clearly are, they never get past the steamy kisses stage of their intended hookup. Instead, they doze off together and talk before hiking Arthur’s Seat the next morning. As the two lie at the top of the hill contemplating their futures, Dexter observes that it’s July 15, St. Swithin’s Day, which cues the story’s central narrative device: We will visit these two each year on the same day, observing how things have (and have not) changed.
Although Dex and Em part ways as friends and nothing more after their first night together, all of us at home already know better. These two are obviously destined to be together, no matter how hard they try to fight their unlikely fate.
Anne Hathaway is not exactly an easy act to follow, but Mod is utterly remarkable in this role. In the early years, she is a ball of nervous energy, never losing sight of the twitchy vulnerability that lurks just beneath Emma’s smart-mouthed bravado. Over the years, Emma’s lack of confidence in her looks has clearly made her a performer, and in Mod’s hands, her compulsive joke-telling is all too human. (And not for nothing, she really is quite funny.)
Woodall, meanwhile, is utterly charming as Dexter—even if he is, to borrow some British slang, a complete “twat” at times. He’s clearly graduated from Jude Law’s Academy for Devastatingly Likable On-Screen Cads, and while there is a remake series of The Talented Mr. Ripley coming later this year, this role proves he would have been a worthy candidate to play Dickie Greenleaf. Over time, when that endearing quality gives way to Dexter’s cocaine-fueled downward spiral, Woodall makes sure to underscore the aimless, shattered little boy that still lives inside the odious man his character has become.
As tends to happen over the years, both of these characters are forced to evolve. Emma’s self doubt becomes her biggest personal hurdle, landing her in a dead-end job and a less-than-passionate romance for years, and Dexter, meanwhile, learns firsthand that getting everything you want at the drop of a hat comes with some pitfalls of its own. And yet, no matter what happens or how much they change, Emma and Dexter always seem to find one another. Each year, their interactions seem to capture a different facet of what love can be—validating, painful, comforting, infuriating, inspiring, redemptive… or all of it at once, depending on the day.
Like most great romances, you can tell that One Day’s writers—Nicole Taylor is the show’s lead writer, with Anna Jordan, Vinay Patel, and Bijan Sheibani—have studied those that came before it. Some of the show’s funniest moments come from its brilliantly executed tropes, like the moment Em and Dex arrive in Greece for their platonic friend-vacation only to find out that, whoops, there’s only one bed in the whole place!
While directors Molly Manners, Kate Hewitt, John Hardwick, and Luke Snellin play some of these moments for laughs, others eventually come back for a more emotional coda—like Emma furtively watching Dexter showering from afar. The comedy and sincerity blend into something perfectly human, deepening a relationship that, in the film at least, could occasionally feel a little under-explored due to time. Also, at the risk of becoming redundant, it must be said again: Every single filming location in this show, which trots across Scotland, Paris, Rome, and London, is somehow more gorgeous than the last—a fitting background for an epic romance.
In those rare moments when Mod and Woodall don’t dominate the screen, the show’s excellent supporting cast—which includes Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries star Essie Davis as Dexter’s mother—makes the story even more unforgettable. In particular, Tim McInnerny (Notting Hill) adds new depth to Dexter’s father, who loves his son but also cannot stomach his occasional vapid selfishness. Meanwhile, Amber Grapy (Smothered) rakes in the belly laughs as Emma’s brash college roommate, Tilly.
One could argue that One Day stretches for just an episode or two too long; at a certain point, Emma and Dexter’s “will they, won’t they” starts to feel more like an “of course they will, so let’s get on with it!” kind of story. Still, any romance author worth their salt knows that the core of an appealing story is the build-up, and in that regard, this series is meticulous. Those who’ve read the original or seen the 2011 film know what eventually becomes of Emma and Dexter, and for those readers, I’ll say that it’s as sudden as ever. If you’re looking for an unequivocal “happily ever after,” this one might not be for you, but then again, you’d miss out on a hell of a story along the way.