The Plot: England, 1987. Former stockbroker Nicholas Winton (Anthony Hopkins) has been reflecting on his long life. He had a small but significant part to play in World War II history, which he documented in his records. He’s now seeking to donate his archives to the right person, but in doing so it draws attention to his achievement. Between 1938 and 1939, with Europe teetering on the edge of a destructive war, his younger self (Johnny Flynn) went to the former Czechoslovakia to bring Jewish refugee children to England and give them a foster home. He knew what was coming and could not ignore it. He had to do something…
The Verdict: The name Nicholas Winton is not as well-known as that of Oskar Schindler, but his remarkable life story has led to him being called ‘the British Schindler’. During WWII he was an ordinary man with a comfortable life in London, but decided to make a difference when Czechoslovakia was invaded by Germany. With the German troops advancing towards Prague, time was of the essence. Through contacts and a combined effort with other concerned citizens, he successfully arranged the safe passage of hundreds of Jewish children to England through the Kindertransport system, saving them from almost certain liquidation in the concentration camps that followed soon after. He did not seek fame or accolades, with his story only really coming to light through a 1980s TV programme. Now it has made its way to a film dramatisation with One Life and it’s long overdue.
The film is structured over two timeframes, flashing back to the 1930s and flashing forward to the 1980s. This is done in a careful manner by director James Hawes, who has mostly worked in television but brings a suitably cinematic touch to this adaptation. That being If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, a book by his daughter Barbara Winton. Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake’s well-written script brings a humble touch to Winton’s escapades in pre-War Europe. At several points, he insists that what he has done in saving these Jewish children is not about him. It was about giving the innocents a chance at life when the dark shadow of impending war was looming large. He didn’t try to seek them out after and have a jolly reunion. The very act and self-satisfaction of doing something for others who were helpless was enough for him.
It’s that subtle sense of humility that drives Anthony Hopkins’ typically brilliant performance, which eschews showy theatrics for a masterclass in understatedness. He brings a strong sense of humanity to Winton, but also a drive to effect real change in the face of mounting odds. He’s complemented by Johnny Flynn’s mirror performance, the panic and guilt running through both the younger and elder Nicholas that more could have been done. One Life… one more life to save. There’s a ticking clock element then to the WWII storyline, which shows the German troops in a brief holding position waiting for the eventual clampdown. In both timeframes, Nicholas is viewed through the eyes of other people too – colleague on the refugee project Doreen (Romola Garai) and his later wife Grete (Lena Olin). This brings a balanced approach to the story and adds a bit more depth to the eventual outcome. The sight of Hopkins standing up from his front row seat in a TV studio to look behind him is a narrative and emotional highpoint.
One Life is very much like its subject – humble to a fault, but therein lies the secret of its success as an adaptation. It doesn’t overplay or underplay its theme that every life matters. Hawes gets the right balance of powerful poignancy and dramatic effect while keeping a sharp focus on Winton’s motivations for his act of kindness to strangers. The housing of refugees fleeing war-torn environments is still topical enough for the film to have a present-day resonance – not so much a happy accident as a realistic reflection that there’s always more that can be done to help people in need. Recommended.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
One Life (UK / 12A / 109 mins)
In short: Powerfully poignant
Directed by James Hawes.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonathan Pryce, Romola Garai.