One Life (2024)

Stirring ‘One Day’ redefines ‘save the children’

I’m ashamed to admit that before seeing “One Life” I had not heard of Sir Nicholas Winton or the Brit hero’s remarkable effort to evacuate hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in the lead-up to World War II. It’s a discovery I won’t soon forget. I wish I could say the same for James Hawes’ movie about him.

It’s perfectly satisfying and abounds with emotional resonance, but you can’t shake the feeling it should have been so much more. Writers Lucinda Coxon (“The Danish Girl”) and Nick Drake (“Romulus, My Father”) dutifully recount how Winton and his dedicated volunteers in London and Prague worked tirelessly to circumvent the Nazis – and mountains of red tape – to rescue 669 kids from what likely would have been certain death.

What’s missing is a comprehensive explanation of how it was all accomplished. Perhaps it was just my autistic obsession with process. Still, I was anxious to learn not just how the operation worked in Prague, but how Winton and his supporters raised hundreds of thousands of pounds at home to finance it, and most importantly, how they managed to round up hundreds of British families to foster the kids. Alas, Hawes and company ineffectually address these aspects with a cursory exploration.

Call it nit-picking, but I found that absence detracting, robbing me of a deeper appreciation for the myriad obstacles Winton conquered at great risk while also finding time to perform his day job as a London stockbroker. When did this guy sleep, assuming he did any time throughout the mission from March 1939 until the Nazis shut him down six months later?

Granted, it’s a complicated story to chronicle. And it most likely would have been more effective as a limited Netflix series. But what’s here remains well worth your time, particularly for fans of Sir Anthony Hopkins, terrific as the aged Winton reflecting on his accomplishment 48 years later as he – by order of wife, Grete (Lena Olin) – declutters a study overflowing with folders and documents. Oh, and also a battered, monogrammed leather attaché containing …

I won’t say. But you’ll see. Just know it sets the stage for a touching finale on the hit BBC program “That’s Life.” It’s a powerful moment. And to think it was courtesy of Winton’s two biggest fans: media mogul Robert Maxwell and his wife, Elizabeth (Marthe Keller), perhaps best known today as the parents of convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell. That aside, Hawes flawlessly recreates Winton’s appearance on the show. Check out the actual footage on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s the best bit in the film, ranking just ahead of the “Two Popes” reunion between Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Winton’s brother, Martin Blake, a participant in the rescue operation that also included mainstays Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp).

Rivaling her sons in their dedication to the cause was their indomitable mum, Babette Winton, who could be counted on to bust some chops and twist the arms of those stuffy bureaucrats at the Home Office. She’s played by a fiery Helena Bonham Carter in a superb performance far removed from her days as an ingenue in one of my all-time favorites, 1986’s “A Room with a View.” She’s so good she frequently upstages Johnny Flynn as the younger Nicholas.

Yes, this is one of those biopics in which we’re ping-ponging from one era to another, in this case 1939 and 1987. Although fitting here, I’m generally not a fan of such devices. It’s a bothersome technique, compounded by Flynn’s rather dull portrayal. I know, he’s playing a wonk redefining nondescript, but a little more personality, please.

No matter. Hopkins and Bonham Carter are more than enough to enhance a story that’s pretty amazing on its own. Sure, it could have been a British “Schindler’s List,” but if you maintain reasonable expectations, you’ll be rewarded. Also, the release could not be more timely given the world’s ever-growing refugee crisis. It leads one to wonder where all the Nicholas Wintons have gone. Our topsy-turvy world turns its jaundiced eyes to you.

Movie review

One Life

Rated: PG

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter, Lena Olin and Jonathan Pryce.

Director: James Hawes

Writers: Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake

Runtime: 106 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: B

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