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Film Review: One Life

Film Reviews

One Life
Director: James Hawes

See Saw Films and BBC Film
In Theaters: 03.15

There are some people whose contributions to humanity simply demand that their story be made into an unforgettable film. One Life certainly makes the point that its subject Nicholas Winton is one of those people—it’s far less successful at convincing us that it is that film. 

In December 1938, Nicky Winton (Johnny Flynn, The Outfit, Stardust), a young London broker born to German-Jewish parents, visits Prague mere weeks after the signing of the Munich Agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. Winton encounters families, most of them Jewish, who have fled Germany and Austria and are living in poor conditions in refugee camps, with little shelter or food and in fear of invasion by the Nazis. Nicky feels compelled to act, and along with his mother, Babi Winton (Helena Bonham Carter, Howard’s End, The King’s Speech), Nicky works round the clock with Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp, How To Talk To Girls At Parties) and Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai, Becoming Elizabeth) of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia to save hundreds of mostly Jewish children before the Nazi occupation seals the borders. In 1988, Nicky is now played by two-time Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Father), and is still tormented by thoughts of the children that he couldn’t get safely to England. When Nicky’s story is discovered by the TV show That’s Life!, he is reunited with some of the people he managed to save, helping him finally confront the guilt and regret he has carried for so many years. 

One Life is made up of a lot of strong moments, and the work that Winton and his colleagues did deserves to be remembered. There’s a fine line, however, between finding stories of heroism and goodness during the Holocaust and turning it into a PG-rated warm-and-fuzzy movie, and director James Hawes doesn’t seem to be worried about crossing it. One Life ends up feeling like someone tried to adapt Schindler’s List into a Hallmark card commercial, and it left me with a bit of a bad aftertaste. Steven Spielberg’s 30-year-old masterpiece demonstrated that you can celebrate lives saved and salute heroism without pushing the truth of the horrors of the Holocaust into the background, and current world events are a stark reminder of the importance of never portraying this kind of atrocity as something that’s firmly in the rearview mirror. In terms of cinematic technique, it’s competently done but a bit unfocused, and its third act walks a tightrope between being emotional and condescendingly maudlin. As far as the PG rating is concerned, Hawes still manages to build a fair amount of tension despite it, though much of that relies on the hope that the audience has seen enough other films on the subject to infer just how dangerous the situation is for these children.

Flynn and Hopkins are both excellent actors, and the fact that they are easily believable as the same person at different ages is one of the film’s major strengths. Hopkins brings a pitiable sense of sorrow to Nicky that packs some emotional punch, though it would have been nice to see more focus on letting us get to know some of the children as three-dimensional characters, especially during the reunion. Carter is memorable as Nicky’s mother and Lena Olin is effective as Nicky’s wife, Grete. Sharp and Garai get many of the most suspenseful and interesting moments in the film and it’s a shame we don’t get to learn a bit more about their characters.

While One Life is fairly effective at alluding to the traumas of the past, it all feels far too comfortable about staying in the past, and that’s genuinely unsettling. As a tribute to Winton, it works well enough, but as he says himself in the film, it’s not about him. It’s a well-acted film that tells a worthy story about courage in face of evil. It’s unfortunate that unlike their own protagonist, the filmmakers play things far too safely. –Patrick Gibbs

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