From 1973-94, That’s Life! was a BBC TV magazine show that bizarrely toggled between consumer affairs and a so-called ‘sideways’ look at life (basically vegetables that resembled genitals). Perhaps it’s only worthwhile, deeply poignant moment – one that does the rounds on social media roughly every 4 months – features an elderly man, Nicholas Winton, who is gobsmacked to discover he is sitting in the studio audience surrounded by some of the now grown-up children he rescued from war-torn Czechoslovakia some 50 years earlier.
James Hawes’s One Life – the title is drawn from the Hebrew scripture: ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire’ – dramatises Winton’s story with a restraint that is at once admirable but perhaps hamstrings its effectiveness as a drama. Winton is often called ‘the British Oskar Schindler’. Held back by a more conservative aesthetic and emotional approach, One Life comes nowhere near the power and veracity of Steven Spielberg’s film. But it does have an ace in the hole in Anthony Hopkins, whose performance delivers a subtle but profound gut-punch.
The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) and co-writer Nick Drake flits between 1938, just after the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the sedate surrounds of 1980s Berkshire. In the pre-war sections, ‘Nicky’ (played with gusto by Johnny Flynn) is a London bank worker – dogged and good with paperwork – who is drawn into the refugee crisis in Prague and forms the British Committee for Refugees to evacuate Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to London.
Anthony Hopkins’ performance delivers a subtle but profound gut-punch
This section sees Winton, with the help of his mother back in London (Helena Bonham Carter operating at peak Helena Bonham Carter), battling red tape to find families for the kids, mixing the mundane (no film has more scenes of photographs being affixed to documents) and the over-heated (of course there is a last gasp attempt to secure a counterfeit visa). Cinematographer Zac Nicholson’s handheld camera amps up the dread and desperation, but too many tearful scenes of kids being separated from parents and shoved on to trains start to lose effectiveness.
The film is better when it switches to the ’80s and the older Winton (Hopkins), now in his ’70s, living a quiet life in the suburbs with wife Grete (The Reader’s Lena Olin) but still tormented by thoughts of not rescuing more than the 669 children he did save. At this point the camera calms down, Hawes having the good sense to stay on Hopkins’ face. Perhaps the most dialled-down performance the actor has given in years, Hopkins perfectly etches an arc from grief and regret towards self-forgiveness, hinting at a form of PTSD without ever over-playing his hand. By the time Winton has his epiphany in the That’s Life! studio, it’s a hard heart that isn’t moved.
In UK cinemas Jan 5, 2024.