One Life (Bleecker Street, PG)

Nicholas Winton was an unequivocal hero before and during World War II, but perhaps one of the most interesting parts of his story is his humility after said heroism. As a young stockbroker initially visiting Czechoslovakia from his native Britain, he spearheaded an effort which ultimately rescued and found foster families for over six-hundred Jewish children who came to Prague as refugees. This operation came to be known as the Kindertransport. In director James Hawes’ One Life, we get a fairly thorough overview of this history, along with a well-rounded rendering of the internal drama which led up to Winton’s work finally being famously recognized on British television nearly fifty years later.

Nicholas (Anthony Hopkins) — affectionately referred to as “Nicky” by his wife Grete (Lena Olin) — is still as passionate as ever about human rights and refugee crises in his old age. As he is reminded of his work during the prewar period, we flash back to young Nicky (Johnny Flynn) first visiting Prague and seeing the crisis firsthand. From a place of no-nonsense charity inside him, his initial plan of week-long volunteerism morphs into months and years, involving not only a close team of volunteers, but also his brokerage firm and even his mother, Babi (Helena Bonham Carter).

Flynn’s performance suggests Winton’s altruistic sense that whatever he does can never be enough. The sentiment “save one life, save the world” comes up in casual conversation in Hopkins’ half of the film, but you can tell in both performances that it would take a gargantuan effort for Nicky to fully accept this notion. He always feels that there is more he could have done or can do. That psychoanalysis is often at the heart of One Life, and it assists the film in packing the emotional and thematic punch it packs in its conclusion, when Nicky realizes the scope of his achievement, even if he still wouldn’t accept the title of “hero.”

Hopkins and Flynn are exceptionally cast as mirror images of each other, and Flynn nails a younger version of Hopkins’ unmistakable and iconic gentle gravitas. Hopkins is as magnetic as ever, even if this is more of an interior performance. Winton was such a unique human being for essentially bottling up his story for so many years, and this film tracks the process of his un-bottling it. It might sound strange to say that someone with his incredible life story could blossom in a whole new way at the age of 79, but that’s exactly what Winton seems to have done.

The film balances the essential historical material very well with the more contemporary 1980s side of the story. Adapting from a biography written by Winton’s daughter Barbara, screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake have a quite refined sense of pacing which allows scenes to breathe, the film to have a strong sense of forward momentum, and each time period to have equal dramatic weight. Kudos should also go to editors Lucia Zucchetti and Thora Woodward in this regard.

One Life is an important accounting of altruism and hard work in the face of enormous pressure and immense threat. It is also a layered, delicate character study about a man who deserves to be remembered as a hero — not only to the people whose lives he saved, but to all of us. | George Napper

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