The legacy of Nicholas Winton (1909-2015), who helped save hundreds of children from suffering, is today represented by a bronze sculpture and the Farewell Memorial at Prague’s Main Railway Station. His act in the past was also recalled by Matěj Mináč’s live-action film All My Close Ones or the Oscar-winning documentary Into Strange Arms.
From the current perspective, the London broker seems to be an internationally known and respected figure. But it wasn’t always like that. Even in the 80s of the last century, the wider public did not know it. Then he was twice invited to the popular TV show That’s Life!. On his second visit, everything was staged in the studio for the strongest possible emotional effect. First a reminder of Winton’s heroic efforts to save Jewish children, then the presenter’s call for every person in the audience to stand up who owes his life to him.
Everyone got up. The video later went viral. And in the movie One Life, the event is presented in the same way and with the same intention – to move the audience.
In fact, it seems that the main motivation for the film was the opportunity to recreate one of the most famous moments in BBC history. The other events, more vividly portrayed in various documentaries, act as a prelude to the tear-jerking finale.
The drama One Life, based on the book by Winton’s daughter Barbara, is told in two parallel lines. The first one is aimed at meeting the “children”. Anthony Hopkins plays Winton, who was almost 80 years old at the time. A kind-hearted senior shares a household with his wife Grete (Lena Olin). At her insistence, he reluctantly starts cleaning the study. Among the dusty shelves, he also discovers a leather briefcase with clippings and photographs commemorating his dedication in the months just before the Second World War. The find triggers buried memories.
In extensive flashbacks from 1938, the main character is played by bland South African singer Johnny Flynn. Young Winton arrives in Prague as a “paperwork expert” to join the services of the British Council for Refugees. It is necessary to solve how to evacuate as many children as possible before the borders are closed. Winton does not have the necessary money or visa. Still, he embarks on a frustrating struggle with time and bureaucracy. His actions are mainly of an administrative nature – making phone calls, writing and sending letters, pasting photos.
A clerk is not an ideal basis for a gripping drama. And the poor direction doesn’t help much either. In particular, the exterior scenes are reminiscent of fictional passages of documentaries about the Second World War. But watching Winton’s struggle with the protocols, one realizes that when saving human lives is at stake, many governments today proceed as laxly as they did eighty years ago. Organizations helping people on the run continue to function mainly because of the courage and determination of individuals.
The suspense of the film is also weakened by the jumping between the two narrative levels, which clumsily trip over each other rather than supporting each other. Each time events in the past take a turn, we return to Hopkins enjoying a quiet, secure retirement and contemplating life. His main task is to add an emotional end to the events completed many decades ago. The final third in particular gives the impression of time being set.
The alternation of hectic and walking pace leads to an intermittent rhythm. The level of acting is equally uneven. All the actors, with the possible exception of Helena Bonham Carter as Winton’s unyielding mother, are overshadowed by Hopkins. He manages to capture the protagonist’s strength and fragility without large gestures. An aging Winton can’t forgive himself for feeling like he didn’t do enough after Munich. A sense of guilt prevents him from finding inner peace. The shots revealing this uncertainty are among the film’s highlights, thanks to Hopkins’ restrained but precise acting.
One Life thus fulfills the lesson that you can recognize a great actor by how he handles an average script. A film about the heroism of a man who didn’t consider himself a hero would be completely forgettable without Hopkins. It just straight up fills the template for a celebratory, sentimental biographical drama. The other actors and actresses participating in the evacuation only play the role of extras in the story of the flawless protagonist.
Winton himself would probably be embarrassed by a similarly polished monument. His deeds were not known for a long time also because, in his modesty, he had no need to brag about them.
The monotonous picture contributes both to Winton’s deification, criticized by some historians, and to the flattening of history into a set of myths, the purpose of which is emotional stirring, not debate. We could excuse this by the fact that this is the feature debut for director James Hawes, who is still shooting for television, and it would be naive to expect a second Schindler’s List. But still – people like Winton deserve better films in addition to attention.
Movie: One Life (2024)
One LifeGreat Britain, 2023, 108 min
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Flynn, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Adrian Rawlins, Samantha Spiro, Marthe Keller, Alex Sharp