Anthony Hopkins is one of our greatest treasures. The two-time Oscar winner regularly dazzles on screen, burrowing himself into his characters, allowing his very recognizable face to disappear behind the people he embodies. In One Life, by director James Hawes, Hopkins plays one of history’s most impressive figures: Sir Nicolas ‘Nicky’ Winton.
Though Hopkins isn’t the only one who plays Winton—the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is broken into two distinct timelines, 1938 and 50 years later in 1988. Hopkins plays Winton in the latter timeline, which finds himself reflective of his past, but also haunted by it. Despite his staggering achievements—Winton was responsible for organizing the British kindertransport, which saved the lives of 669 children from the Nazis, taking them by train from Czechoslovakia to the United Kingdom. Later in life, Nicky lives largely anonymously, with only the people closest to him aware of his past.
But when his wife Grete (Lena Olin) pushes him to clear out the clutter in their home, Nicky comes across a book filled with documents, including the photographs and names of all the children he was responsible for. This sparks him to try and get his story out in the world, believing that his experiences would make for valuable lessons—he couldn’t have been more right.
Of all the remarkable human stories that came from World War II, Nicky’s is one of the most extraordinary. A man who defied the odds traveled to Czechoslovakia and saved an incredible 669 children. It’s extremely frustrating then, to see such a remarkable tale of adversity be reduced to an overly predictable story. I don’t mean that in terms of the plot—of course, in a film based on history, it has to accomplish certain things in a quest to be historically accurate—but in a sense of familiarity. It’s an incredibly formulaic film: There are no surprises formally or emotionally. It hits the exact beats you expect it to, refusing to challenge or excite the audience in any real way. It’s so disappointing to see a story of such a risk-taker be so safe.
Winton once said, “I wasn’t heroic. I was never in danger.” That speaks to his incredible character and humility, never wanting to put himself at the forefront of his achievements—helping children was the only thing that mattered. But the quote also hints at one of the film’s biggest problems. The film’s early timeline, beginning in 1938, finds a young Nicky (Johnny Flynn), traveling back and forth from the Czech to the UK to organize the rescue of child refugees.
It’s this timeline where the film comes apart. Winton’s story is fascinating, absolutely, but cinema doesn’t feel like the best place for it. For such a tall task, the film is surprisingly limited in dramatic stakes, relying on dramatic montages of letter writing, stamping letters, sealing letters… There are an awful lot of letters.
Winton’s task was largely administrative, and watching people wait for meetings, trimming photographs, and reading letters doesn’t exactly make for riveting viewing. There’s a distinct human element here, among both the children struggling for survival and the other people working on the ground in Czechoslovakia. But instead of honing in on them, it’s more interested in the minute details of the work done by Winton and his mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter). It’s remarkable work, but Hawes’ direction and Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake’s screenplay omit the most interesting human details, creating a cold, calculated feeling that indeed lacks any sense of risk.
The Hopkins timeline is when the film is most interesting. Hopkins truly is outstanding, as a man grappling with his past and reckoning with the impact he’s made, tortured by the sole fact that he could have saved even more children. It’s shattering, and the film is never more engaging than when we’re by Hopkins’ side. His mere glances out of a window, or quiet seated contemplation tells us a lifetime of experiences.
And of course, the film is emotional. I cried a lot, and the sound of sniffles permeated the screening. The film culminates with the now-viral real-life moment of Winton appearing on the BBC program That’s Life in 1988—if you’re unfamiliar with the segment, I won’t spoil it here. You won’t, however, make it out with a dry eye.
I genuinely cannot imagine any filmmaker not being able to get the tears flowing from this story. The moment was designed on That’s Life to make people cry. It’s also pretty easy to make people cry—I honestly cannot remember a film about the Holocaust that didn’t make me sob. And it’s practically a cardinal rule that if Anthony Hopkins cries, you cry too. It’s a beautiful scene—the best in the film—but the fact that the film’s finest moment is more or less a shot-by-shot recreation tells you how lacking the filmmaking is.
Despite its ability to mine tears, there’s a hollowness to One Life. Hopkins is ever brilliant, and the supporting cast delivers, but the majority of this film, it must be said, is repetitive and uninteresting. Nicholas Winton was obsessed with saving every child he possibly could—to know these children, love these children, and ensure that they would have great lives after experiencing life-shattering trauma. It’s odd, then, that the film is largely uninterested in the humanity of these children until the very end, opting for various quick shots of children crying and looking somber instead of pulling back the layers of these remarkable lives.
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