Several years ago, a clip from a 1988 episode of the BBC satirical news show 'That's Life' began to circulate on social media. In it, the host Esther Rantzen refers to an older man in the front row of the studio audience. His name is Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who, Rantzen explains to the audience at home, facilitated the rescue of 669 children from Czechoslovakia at the dawn of the Nazi invasion and the Holocaust. Rantzen then asks if there is anyone in the audience who was one of those children or were a relation of them, and if they are, to please stand up. One by one, every member of the audience rises to their feet. Nicholas Winton, his wife Grete next to him, is clearly overcome with shock and emotion. It's almost impossible not to be moved watching it.
In the years since Winton's story and his work on the Czech Kindertransport were made public, he has been honoured as a hero for his work in the 1930s and for his continued humanitarian work across the United Kingdom, being knighted in 2003 and receiving an Order of the White Lion from the Czech Republic in 2014. When he passed away at the age of 106 in 2015, he had reconnected with many of the children he had rescued, creating a newfound family around him, his wife and his own children.
The popularity of the clip of 'That's Life' on social media meant that a film about Sir Nicholas felt inevitable, and I have to be honest, when the film was announced, I was sceptical. We've seen numerous biopics built around a single moment in a person's life, where the story feels stretched and the necessity for dramatisation questionable. We've also seen the rise of late (in fiction and non-fiction books especially) in inspirational Holocaust literature, endless titles like 'The [Something] of Auschwitz" turning easily digestible stories from one of the worst events in human history into a minor publishing industry. There was every risk that Sir Nicholas' story, and the stories of those who worked with him and were saved by him, would meet a similar fate.
Thankfully, a tremendous amount of care has gone into 'One Life'. The feature debut of British television director James Hawkes and written by Lucinda Coxon ('The Danish Girl') and Nick Drake ('Romulus, My Father'), the film very carefully examines the reasoning behind Sir Nicholas' decision to establish the Kindertransport, the complications of rescuing so many children under the threat of Nazi violence and, most importantly, how the experience weighed on Sir Nicholas for the rest of his life.
The spine of the film looks at Sir Nicholas (Sir Anthony Hopkins, 'The Father') in the mid-'80s, encouraged by his wife Grete (Lena Olin, 'Chocolat') to get his mountainous papers spread all over their house in order. This includes a scrapbook in which Nicholas has kept the documents, clippings and photographs from the Kindertransport campaign, where as a young man (Johnny Flynn, 'Emma.'), with the help of his mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter, 'Fight Club') and a group of humanitarians working in Prague, he devised a way to work with British bureaucracy and the survivors fleeing the Nazis to evacuate as many children from Czechoslovakia as possible. Despite this extraordinary achievement, Nicholas feels uncomfortable sharing his story, not wanting to attract attention, until escalating international refugee crises give him the reason he needs to tell it.
'ONE LIFE' TRAILER
By focusing in on Nicholas in his later years and his quiet internal struggle, the film averts many of the more obvious biopic tropes. The flashbacks to the late 30s provide the necessary narrative drama, but Hawkes, Coxon and Drake really do keep it as the secondary narrative. For the most part, we sit inside Sir Nicholas' internal space, quiet moments of contemplation and struggle. This gives us a clear and easily accessible emotional anchor point as an audience, rather than overwhelming us with the enormity of the evacuation. Coxon and Drake's dialogue might be a tad clunky at times, especially in the flashbacks where they have to communicate a lot of bureaucratic exposition and make drama out of paperwork, but they keep these moments swift, letting the emotional drama lead the way. It's a real credit to their writing and to Hawkes' direction that, as strong as the flashbacks are, you find yourself eager to return to the older Nicholas, both for the stillness of those sequences and their emotional complexity.
An obvious comparison for 'One Life' would be Spielberg's monumental 1993 masterpiece 'Schindler's List', and the two films share more than just the obvious narrative similarities. Spielberg's film ends with Schindler sobbing, wishing he could have saved even one more person. This guilt permeates through the entirety of 'One Life' - the tragedy being that, regardless of what he achieved, Sir Nicholas believes he could and should have done more. No one in the film is telling him this, and certainly from the flashbacks we can see just how impossible the task was and how remarkable it was that they saved as many as they did, but his guilt is so quiet, so deep, so all-consuming, almost impossible to counteract. In one of the film's most moving scenes, where Sir Nicholas shares the scrapbook with Holocaust researcher Elisabeth Maxwell (Marthe Keller, 'Marathon Man'), he interprets her amazement at the number of children he rescued as confirmation that they didn't save enough. With no notion of what happened to the children after their rescue he is left, not with the faces of those who survived, but those he couldn't, the full and rich lives of families he met in the detritus of Prague wiped from the earth by the most inconceivable evil, and it is only when he believes that sharing his story may help others in need that he reluctantly steps into the spotlight.
It's the fact that 'One Life' keeps this sadness and this melancholy ever-present that makes the film as affecting and as vital as it is. Heroism comes at a cost, especially when that heroism involves looking the worst of humanity in the face. As the film moves through the flashbacks to the inevitable invasion of Czechoslovakia, it never pretends that we don't know what's on the other side of it. The sadness at the heart of 'One Life' may not be as overwhelming as a film like 'Schindler's List', but it is quiet and potent, preventing the film from lapsing into lazy inspirational clichés. It is able to make a number of astute assumptions about its audience - it trusts that they remember what happened, trusts that they understand the weight of it, and also trusts that they know how this ends, with Sir Nicholas sitting in a studio in the BBC, where the ghosts that haunt him are replaced with the faces of the lives he saved and the generations that exist now because of him. In order to get there, to that beautiful ending we know is coming, Hawkes and his team need to earn it, not just rely on it to work no matter what. When it does come, the fact we have journeyed through the difficulties of the Kindertransport and sat in the deep, potent guilt of a man who has no reason to feel guilty, makes the moment itself all the more powerful.
At the heart of the film, and without whom, even with all the care taken with it, the whole thing wouldn't work, is Sir Anthony Hopkins. His performance is extraordinary, careful and quiet and absolutely devastating.
There's a real sense of responsibility to the craft of the film. It's unadorned and unhurried, devoid of flash or pop. It has a job to do, and it's going to do it with patience, clarity and respect. This extends through the direction, the writing, the editing and design and into the performances, all of which take this responsibility as an opportunity to acknowledge history rather than as a burden. Tremendous actors such as Helena Bonham Carter, Ronald Garai and Alex Sharp support Johnny Flynn through the flashbacks, bringing a necessary lightness of touch to balance the weight of what Flynn has to deliver. The same can be said of Lena Olin and Samantha Spiro as Esther Rantzer in the 80s sequences. Everyone in the supporting cast knows what part they need to play, and they bring all their collective and considerable skill to bear on it. Likewise with the ever-excellent Flynn, who has emerged as one of the UK's great acting chameleons and one of their most exciting talents.
At the heart of the film, and without whom, even with all the care taken with it, the whole thing wouldn't work, is Sir Anthony Hopkins. His performance is extraordinary, careful and quiet and absolutely devastating. He finds access to Sir Nicholas' guilt and sadness with such humanity, such honesty, such generosity. There are moments in this film where we just see him sitting in silence, and you can feel everyone in the room holding their breath, holding back tears. When that quiet sadness breaks, it's impossible not to feel your heart ache for him. It feels like we'd forgotten Hopkins for a few years, forgot that he was one of our greatest living actors, someone whose work used to make the world stop in awe. His turn on 'Westworld' was tremendous, and his jaw-dropping (and deservedly Oscar-winning) performance in 'The Father' felt like a miracle, the return of a great artist. His performance in 'One Life' seals the deal. If this had been released in the United States during this year's awards season, I have no doubt we would be talking about him as a serious awards contender. It's easily one of the finest performances of the year.
As inevitable as a film about Sir Nicholas Winton seemed, the stars have aligned for it to arrive at this moment. They aligned with the dedicated creative team and supporting cast, all of whom understood the necessity of this story and the responsibility of dramatising it. They aligned with the central performance of Sir Anthony Hopkins, who imbues the film with so much grace and melancholy. And they aligned with the moment in history in which the film itself arrives. It was impossible to watch this film and not consider the actions of Sir Nicholas in the 30s in the face of overwhelming genocide, in relation to the acts of genocide happening before our eyes right now to the people of Gaza, the horrifying inevitability that comes when extreme and unchecked violence is unleashed against a people while international powers just sit by and wring their hands. Watching this nightmare play out before our eyes has been impossible to wholly comprehend, but a film like 'One Life' reminds us that, when governments fail to act, we as individuals still have the capacity to stand up against such evil, that what seems like so little that we can do can still make a difference. So many suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, and so many suffer in Gaza right now, but just saving one life, in whatever way we can, is to stand in the face of unrestrained evil and believe in the potential good in all of us. As is written in the Talmud, "Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world."