One Life Review

One Life
British stockbroker Nicholas Winton (Hopkins) reflects on his daring plan, decades earlier, to rescue children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia before the onset of World War II.

by Kelechi Ehenulo |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 2024

Original Title:

One Life

For those old enough to remember, a particular 1988 episode of That’s Life!, hosted by Esther Rantzen, was an iconic moment in British television history. Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 Czech-Jewish children from the threat of Nazi Germany, was given a poignant reunion with the children he managed to save, many of whom made up part of the studio audience.

James Hawes’ One Life is a solid retelling of the events which led to that historic TV moment, although his feature-film debut, despite its parallels with conflicts happening today, doesn’t match the emotional heights of Rantzen’s show. The safe and conventional filmmaking here almost derails the intended power and importance of Nicholas’ achievements. But at least it offers a notable takeaway on how the ordinary can accomplish something extraordinary.

One Life

Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake’s script splits its efforts between Maidenhead, 1987, and London, 1938. Tasked by his wife Grete (Lena Olin) to clear out his old things and let go of the past, the older Winton (Anthony Hopkins) — a hoarder extraordinaire — rediscovers his old scrapbook. He begins reminiscing about his pre-war efforts, when the young Winton (Johnny Flynn) visited Prague and had a life-changing experience, witnessing children in refugee camps, living in inhospitable conditions. Cue visas, trains, fundraising, record-keeping and cutting through the legal red tape to get the youngsters out of the country as the threat of war looms.

Hopkins delivers a heartfelt and sincere performance

Coxon and Drake keep things light and simple, opting for a formulaic approach heavily reliant on an emotionally stirring third act. However, such a move doesn’t always do its two-pronged storyline justice. The plot — a surface-level dramatisation at best — suffers from missed opportunities to meaningfully explore the psychological impact of the rescue, not just from Nicholas’ point of view, but also the eyes of others who were instrumental in the evacuation. Thanks to their lack of on-screen development, Romola Garai’s Doreen and Alex Sharp’s Trevor, the film’s major supporting characters, end up the biggest casualties left on the sidelines.

In spite of such shortcomings, One Life finds its strength through Anthony Hopkins. An actor whom you can always depend on, Hopkins delivers a heartfelt and sincere performance, capturing the melancholic gravity behind Winton’s pain, grief and regret over not accomplishing more. You feel that weight and nuance whenever he studies an old photograph or attempts to share his story with the press, making that powerful and cathartic conclusion worthwhile. Flynn is equally impressive as his younger counterpart. It’s in these performances that One Life really comes to life.

The over-familiar story-beats and safe execution stop this from reaching its full potential — but Hopkins and Flynn shine, providing a moving portrayal of Winton’s life.
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