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‘One Life’ Review: Anthony Hopkins In The Moving And Inspiring Story Of One Man Who Saved 669 Children In 1938 And Kept It Secret For 50 Years

By now the inspiring story of Sir Nicholas Winton and the 669 children he saved from near certain death at the hand of the Nazis on the eve of World War II in Europe has been well told in books, documentaries, television programs, a 60 Minutes segment, and many other ways. Even a myth of sorts has been created around this heroic man that isn’t quite the whole truth, but nevertheless Nicky, as he was known, was indeed a hero. He also kept his story secret for 50 years until a BBC show called That’s Life uncovered it and became a sensation in England in the late 80’s. Winton never felt he kept his efforts a half century earlier “secret”, instead he “just never talked about it”.

Now a new film, One Life, which premiered in September at the Toronto Film Festival, and is now being released this week in North America, dramatizes it by spanning two distinct time periods – 1938 when it all took place and 1988 when the world finally learned about it. That is where this film starts as we meet Winton (Anthony Hopkins), then 79 years old before going into flashbacks to tell the story of the young man when he was 29 (Johnny Flynn plays the younger version) and on vacation where he discovered the plight of Czechoslovakian refugees living in dire circumstances as Hitler was on the precipice of invading the country and war could soon break out.

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This unassuming man decided to do something about it, gathering the names of as many children as he could and then centering his efforts to get them to Prague where ‘Nicky’s Children’, as they would come to be known, were given the opportunity to get on trains, placed there by their increasingly panicked parents, and sent to England and foster homes out of harms way, certainly expecting and hoping to be reunited with their families in the future. Once the war broke out most of those, mainly Jews, left behind were rounded up and never heard from again, but Winton, with some sly effort to break through the bureaucratic red tape in his home country and with help of a small band of dedicated colleagues as well as his mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter) pulled off a miracle loading the “kinder” as the kids were known on to train after train. Unfortunately the 8th train that was to leave Prague, already with another 250 kids on board, never left as that was on the day the war broke out. Most of them were presumed to have later died in the concentration camps, a fact that haunted Winton the rest of his life (he lived to be 106, dying in 2015).

In 1988, without Winton’s knowledge, he was lured into a BBC TV studio where the audience would be full of the now much older people who were on those trains but never knew the man who saved them because he never talked about it. If tears don’t come rolling down your face during this amazing reunion you are not human. It would lead to the kind of instant fame he never asked for and knighthood by Queen Elizabeth.

With a screenplay based on Winton’s daughter Barbara’s book, If It’s Not Impossible…The Life Of Sir Nicholas Winton, the story has been adapted by screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, and directed by first time feature filmmaker James Hawes, known for his extensive work in television, who tells Winton’s tale with admirable restraint and limited sentimentality, a task made much easier by the casting of Hopkins who simply inhabits this modest man who made a difference in this world by way of his own humanity. Flynn is completely credible in taking on the younger Winton, and is supported, as was Winton himself, with some remarkable people who joined him in this seemingly impossible quest. They include Alex Sharp as Trevor Chadwick who had unique skills, including some necessary forging of travel documents and other ways around the Nazi command, and Romola Garai as the indispensible and well organized Doreen Warriner who knew how to get the impossible done, along with Winton’s indefatiguable mother played with spark by Bonham Carter. Lena Olin as Winton’s wife Grete is also very fine here.

Winton, like Oskar Schindler, was one of the rare ordinary heroes in a time of unimaginable horror who stepped up to prove every life is precious and worth herculean efforts to save. This film, like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List 30 years ago is testament to that fact, and a reminder that heartbreaking stories like this are still happening to families around the world.

Volker Bertelmann’s tender score adds just the right touch to this excellent film that should not be missed. Producers are Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Joanna Laurie, and Guy Heeley.

Title: One Life
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Release Date: March 15, 2024
Director: James Hawes
Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon, Nick Drake
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter, Alex Sharp, Romola Garai, Lena Olin
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour and 49 minutes

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