In this love story adapted from David Nicholls’s best-selling British novel, the singular day of record isn’t simply July 15, 1988—the date Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) meet after their university commencement—but also each July 15 thereafter, spanning more than two decades. “At the end of the film,” says Lone Scherfig, who also directed the coming-of-age tale An Education, “I want the audience to suddenly realize that 20 years have passed—just the way you do in life.” Each year we drop in on Dexter, a carefree toff in his youth, and Emma, an earnest idealist in hers, as the two acquire bad jobs and worse habits, not to mention relationships and families. The backdrop (London, mostly), fashion (lots of wide shoulders), and pop culture landmarks (two words: Fatboy Slim) cycle through the years. Through it all, Dex and Em toe a careful line somewhere between friendship and romance, becoming with every missed opportunity the kind of star-crossed characters you can’t help but pull for.
Emma Morley, in particular, with her mix of transparent vulnerability and highly evolved sarcasm, might be the most beloved fictional Brit since Bridget Jones—something not lost on the director. “I’m very thankful for Renée Zellweger,” Scherfig says, referring to the American actress’s success in the Bridget Jones movies, which smoothed the way for Hathaway’s casting.
The spark between Em and Dex flashes white hot at times and flickers with a steely coldness at others. “The chemistry between Anne and Jim was very important for this sort of film,” says Scherfig. And although whether they end up together is of course the driving question, it might not be the one most worth asking. “It isn’t just about if they get together or how they get together,” Scherfig explains. “Ultimately, it’s about how you spend your time.”