Based on the book “If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton” by Barbara Winton, One Life is the directorial debut of British director James Hawes. The film stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton, who was responsible for saving over 650 refugee children during World War II.
Produced by BBC Films, One Life presents itself as a conventional tale of war and hope. We have the imminent threat of war and the Nazis themselves, and how the world struggles to cope in such dark times. This tale is no exception – in the late 1930s, stockbroker Winton (Johnny Flynn) travels to Prague to meet with friend Martin Blake (Ziggy Heath) but finds himself exposed to the poor living conditions of refugee families. This short trip inspires Winton to campaign for the safety of refugee children by organising travel, visas and foster homes in the UK.
Since the majority of One Life is from the perspective of the now-elderly Winton (Hopkins), the film dilutes the fact that the mission is a group effort. Blake, Winton and his mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter) work hard to organise the visas and coordinate foster home availability but they do this from the UK. However, other parties of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), which include Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) amd Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp), were also integral to the effort but had the added pressure of placing themselves in mortal danger with each day they spend in Prague and during each train journey to the UK. However, their significance is not as prominent as Winton’s in One Life so the singular narrative (similar to Tony Mendez in Ben Affleck’s Oscar winner Argo) fails to celebrate their more precarious efforts.
In addition, Hopkins’ headline billing easily overshadows the rest of the casting. Even though he brings a touching performance, notable supporting cast members that include Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Flynn offer more layered performances that raise the narrative to more than just a lost chapter in history – yet it is Hopkins who draws the most attention, especially as the narrative has been adapted to highlight Winton and his efforts during his later years.
However, Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake’s screenplay and Volker Bertelmann’s score incorporate a subtle sense of urgency on every element of this mission, from the gathering of names to bringing the children to the UK. Meanwhile, Hawes’ direction captures the bleak chaos of the situation and the group’s constant race against time. Combined with the number of children that needed to be rescued (in the thousands), it becomes an almost impossible feat that highlights the determination and spirit of a small group of people. It just feels like a shame that the impact of this monumental mission feels downplayed until a deeply moving but rushed conclusion in the form of a celebrated episode of BBC show That’s Life delivers an aftershock that could have been slowly developed for a more satisfying outcome.
Overall, One Life comes across as a sanitised account of Nicholas Winton’s efforts that doesn’t fully convey the enormity and emotional depth of the mission. Featuring some mixed performances, the drama just comes across as a rushed insight into a prolific yet underexplored part of history.
Director: James Hawes; Lucinda Coxon, Nick Drake
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Lena Olin, Johnny Flynn, Alex Sharp, Ziggy Heath, Helena Bonham Carter
Runtime: 110 minutes