One Life

One Life, 2023, 3 ½ stars

The English Schindler

One Life is a righteous retelling of Winton tale

Exclusive to MeierMovies, March 12, 2024 

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

Those words were spoken, of course, about George Bailey, in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But they could just as easily apply to Nicholas Winton, who, seven years prior, had engineered the evacuation of 669 children, mostly Jewish, from Prague to England on the eve of World War II.

Winton has since been dubbed the English Oskar Schindler, but his story wasn’t widely known until 1988, when the British television show That’s Life featured Winton. That famous clip, in which Winton is surprised by the audience, almost all of whom were those he saved, or their children, has been seen by millions. And the story has already been told on film, three times by Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč and once by American documentarian Mark Jonathan Harris. Mináč’s most famous version was 2011’s Nicky’s Family, which has powerful moments but suffers from some of the clunkiness typical of a half-biopic, half-doc format. (Go here to read my original review.) Harris’s Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, from 2000, won the Oscar for documentary feature.

So, unfortunately for first-time feature director James Hawes (all his previous work has been in television), there are few surprises left for his new drama, One Life. Still, one might argue that, thanks to its excellent cast, most notably Anthony Hopkins, Hawes’ version is the best. But with few new details left to share – and Winton’s big reveal taking place more than three decades ago – this reviewer can’t help asking Hawes: “Why now?”

These are critiques more of context than content, however, as there is plenty to appreciate in One Life. Hopkins, arguably our greatest living actor, brings his usual humanity and quiet power to the role of the elderly Winton, while Johnny Flynn (The Outfit) is surprisingly effective as the younger Winton, able to hold his own with Hopkins when the film cuts between times. He even upstages Hopkins occasionally, but that’s likely because the part of the movie set in the late 1930s is more tension-filled than the segments in the late 1980s. Hopkins, for all his acting chops, simply doesn’t have quite as much to do as Flynn, and a potentially delicious cameo by Jonathan Pryce, as Winton’s friend (reuniting the two actors following their triumph with The Two Popes five years ago), is mostly wasted.

The excellent performances of Winton’s co-workers from the portion of the film set in the late 1930s also go somewhat unfulfilled, as their storylines are mostly dropped toward the movie’s end, in favor of focus on the elderly Winton. That was probably the only practical choice, but it speaks to the difficulty of juggling timelines and perhaps the shortcomings of either Hawes’ direction or the script by Lucinda Coxon, Nick Drake and Barbara Winton.

The most memorable supporting performer is Helena Bonham Carter, as the younger Winton’s mother, who helped secure safe passage for the children in England while Winton was busy in Prague. She is so strong, in fact, that – even more than the other actors from the 1930s segment – we feel a profound sense of cinematic loss when she disappears toward the film’s end. Not as effective is the wife of the elderly Winton, played by Lena Olin. Her performance and character get a bit lost, and the obvious age difference between Olin and Hopkins begs an explanation.

Other aspects (art direction, score and mood) are mostly spot-on, but, of all elements, only Hopkins’ and Carter’s performances will likely linger in audience’s minds, unless one has never heard of Winton, which seems unlikely. But the film is still a great reminder that, as Winton said, “If something isn’t blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”

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For more information about this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia. The film premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and is opening this week theatrically in limited release in the United States.