Anthony Hopkins recently played an elderly Jewish man who fled persecution as a child in James Gray’s Armageddon Time. He continues in this vein somewhat with One Life, this time playing British Jew Nicholas Winton, an actual historical figure, who in his youth helped child refugees flee Czechoslovakia during World War II. In some ways, it’s one of Hopkins’ best performances from the last few years, beautifully underplayed, eschewing mannerisms or silly accents. It’s just a shame the film itself, directed by James Hawes, with a script by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, is a bit worthy and diagrammatic. Still, that won’t stop it from traveling far to festivals and probably finding distribution as fare appealing to older viewers, especially in the U.K., where many seniors may remember the moment on TV show That’s Life! in 1988 that made Winton famous.
The film’s title is inspired by a Hebrew proverb, one cited often in Schindler’s List, that translates roughly as: “He who saves one life saves the whole world.” Indeed, Nicholas has been described as a “British Oskar Schindler,” although he comes across as a very different sort of character than the one depicted in Thomas Keneally’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s film. Winton, his mother Babi (played here by Helena Bonham Carter) and his friends in the British Committee for Refugees saved 669 children during the war, most of them Jewish, by getting them out of Prague on trains and over to foster homes in the U.K. before the Nazis closed down that escape route.
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However, even though these efforts saved not only those children but also meant they would go on and have children of their own years later, Nicky Winton still felt guilty he couldn’t save more, according to the book about him written by his daughter Barbara on which the film is based. At its best, this film can stand as a reminder that every act of kindness, every life saved, is a mitzvah one way or another.
The film cuts back and forth between the late 1980s and the lead-up to and early days of World War II, just after the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. In the pre-war part of the film, Nicky (played by the protean Johnny Flynn, from Emma and Beast) is a banker working in London. He’s used to a fairly cushy lifestyle, but gets interested in the refugee problem when his friend Trevor (Alex Sharp) calls to say they can’t go skiing in the Alps because he, Trevor, is busy trying to help people avoid being murdered by the Nazis. Nicky comes out to see Trevor in Prague anyway, and is so moved by the plight of the people he meets, most of them living in tents as winter sets in, that he decides to help. He joins forces at the Committee with not just Trevor but also forceful organizer Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and several local Committee members.
Although he’s no linguist and doesn’t have any contacts of his own in Prague, Nicky’s special skills include his doggedness and aptitude for paperwork. He is also the one who recognizes that their most effective course of action is to focus on the children and hope they can bring out parents at a later date. Between him and his mum Babi, a force of nature designed by Bonham Carter’s performance to flatter every Jewish mother watching the film, they manage to wrangle the bureaucracy on the British end, use publicity to drum up foster families for the kids in the U.K., and above all raise money.
The whole 1938-39 section is efficiently done and uses locations in Prague, fortunately not too scathed by the war in physical terms, to add veracity, as does the casting of Czech kids. That said, the scenes of families crying and little ones looking terrified and sad at the train station get a bit repetitive. What with all the tearful goodbyes amid the locomotive steam as trains pull away, you’d almost think you were watching a film from the period.
The scenes set in the 1980s end up being in someways more of an emotional gut punch thanks to Hopkins’ patient, gentle performance. In this time frame, Nicky, now in his 70s, has promised his wife Grete (Lena Olin) to clear out some of the clutter from his office in time for Christmas. That sets him sifting through his old scrapbooks where he recorded his work for the Committee, kept lists of the kids they targeted for transport, all illustrated with photographs he took himself. Over lunch with his old friend Martin (Jonathan Pryce), Nicky wonders what to do with his old material. He contemplates donating it to a Holocaust museum, but wants to try to draw a little attention to the plight of refugees, as much a live issue in 1988 as it is today.
The scrapbook ends up in the hands of the production team at That’s Life!, a BBC-made TV show anchored by broadcasting star Esther Rantzen, which offered a bizarre factual mixture of muck-raking investigation, consumer advice and home movies of pets doing funny things, like a primeval version of YouTube. Nicky is invited to come sit in the audience to see the show where they’ve promised they will discuss his wartime experience and … as they say these days, you won’t believe what happens next. The whole extraordinary scene, still deeply moving, with the real Nicky Winton, can be seen on YouTube as a matter of fact, and arguably it’s the way the film recreation mimics the moment so closely that makes it so effective.
After this emotional high point, One Life struggles to know where to go. Clearly, the filmmakers want to send the viewer out on another high, although there’s not so much to smile about as the Second World War section of the story is tied up. At least this is a case where the end credits, explaining what happened to everyone, earn their uplift.
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