One Life review: Nicholas Winton’s extraordinary life story brought to the screen

One Life
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Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn headline One Life – and here’s our review of the true life drama.

On a Sunday night back in the 1980s, as part of a BBC television magazine show that would zip from a talking dog to consumer rights, the extraordinary story of a man called Nicholas Winton came to public attention.

Winton – and a group of people, as he and the film One Life point out – were responsible for the evacuation of over 600 children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. The extraordinary moment from that TV show where he found himself surrounded by some of those people decades later has been clipped and viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube.

In short: it’s a story that many have become aware of, even if they don’t know the full context.

One Life, the dramatization of what happened, works on the assumption that nobody knows anything, and also on the assumption that we’ve got to be home by a certain time. Just about fitting into two hours, it opts to split Winton’s story in two. On the one hand, we’re back in the late 1930s, where he’s played by Johnny Flynn. Then, in the 1980s, he looks a lot more like Anthony Hopkins. The two narratives are then cross-cut.

The 1930s tale takes up the majority of the film’s first half, and sees Flynn becoming driven to find an escape route for hundreds of children, a task that inevitably comes with significant hurdles. Again, it’s a very ensemble-driven effort, with Romala Garai’s Doreen in particular a standout amongst the cast. Penned by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, in turn adapting Barbara Winton’s book about her brother, this part of the film is honourable, effective and gets across a flavour of what Winton and his collaborators were up against.

It’s also the most conventional part of the film. Shot by Zac Nicholson and directed by James Hawes (an experienced television director, making his feature debut), it’s perfectly well done, but also, does ultimately feel like it’s laying foundations for the more impactful part of the drama.

Inevitably, it is. That comes in the 1980s segment, where we see Winton as Hopkins, pottering around his house and threatening to revisit material from his past. It’s where the big emotional impact of the story lies, and One Life doesn’t waste its hand. There’s a lot more patience to this part, the camera lingering on Hopkins, a masterful actor completely in control of his performance. He puts across a quiet dignity, even as the story of what he was part-responsible for is discovered over in a BBC office.

It’s in these moments that the film is very much at its strongest. Whether you’re aware of where it’s heading or not – and I very much was – the final ten minutes or so here is so intensely moving that I was feeling it long before it got there. Stories, after all, aren’t always about surprise. My absolute favourite film is Field Of Dreams, a film with a superb ending. Over time, that I know where that film is headed oddly makes it more powerful for me. I found that with One Life, but can’t give you the perspective of someone who didn’t know where it was all going to end up.

I’ve seen on more than one occasion One Life described as a ‘British Schindler’s List’, which I do take some issue with. I see the parallel, the idea that it’s a story of a man whose actions saved many, many lives. But also, they’re different circumstances, different tales, and very different films.

In fact, what I admire a lot about One Life is what some have taken issue with it for: that’s it’s a film sitting in the midst of mainstream, at a comfortable running time, that’s accessible to the point of being family friendly. In fact, this is just the kind of film I want to watch with my older children, and because of the certificate, I can.

Perhaps it’s not the most radical telling of Nicholas Winton’s extraordinary story, even if the cross-cutting does lend it dual perspectives. But I like the fact the film doesn’t put things in the way of telling a strong story in such an efficient manner. A fine film, this, and a warmly recommended one.

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