James Hawes’ One Life is an emotional, heart-felt journey, jumping between the onset of World War II and the late 1980s.
The film opens in December 1938. Nicholas “Nicky” Winton is a mild-mannered British stockbroker headed for a week in Prague. Increasingly, refugees have fled there to try to outrun the growing Nazi presence in Europe. Winton wants to help in any way he can, but the situation he finds when get there greatly disturbs him. Children – many Jewish – are facing desperately poor conditions. They have little or no shelter, are malnourished, sick and dying, as the tide of anti-semitism rises. Where others work within the system, Winton subverts it. He intends to transport as many children as he can via train to temporary homes in England before the borders are closed. But first he needs the legal authority to do so, as well as the financing and foster parents.
Decades later – in 1987 – Winton’s war-time experiences come flooding back. The prompt is opening a thick scrapbook charting his exploits. In turn, that triggers a series of life-affirming events.
One Life is a remarkable story of persistence and humility. Winton is presented as a humanitarian, intent on doing the right thing. As a younger man he is the driving force behind a remarkable rescue effort. In old age he finally gets the recognition he so richly deserved.
One Life is based on the book If It’s Not Possible, by Nicholas Winton’s daughter, Barbara (who passed away midway through principal photography on the film). The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake is well developed, with many surprises coming near the end of the movie. The score by Volker Bertelmann resonates. Director Hawes cut his teeth helming TV series. His transition to the big screen is seamless.
Anthony Hopkins is compelling, measured and humble as a man initially told to clean up his clutter. Johnny Flynn plays Winton’s younger self as respectful, but shocked into taking action, when others see the barriers as too severe. Helena Bonham-Carter is memorable as Winton’s assertive mother, Babette, who brought up her son with a strong streak of conscience. Lena Olin fills the role of Winton’s loving, Danish-born wife, Grete with warmth and alacrity. Romola Garai paints Doreen Warriner, the head of the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia, as an energetic and spirited leader. Alex Sharp is a good sort as Trevor Chadwick, a boots on the ground fellow Brit in Prague, never afraid of mucking in.
One Life gives voice to the truism that one man can make a difference. I was reminded of the excellent Schindler’s List. I also couldn’t but help think about just how much this movie resonates in the fractured world in which we live today.
One Life is a pivotal picture in the 2023 British Film Festival, which runs through November in Palace Cinemas.It will be in general release on Boxing Day.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.