One Life

One Life
One Life
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In a recent film titled Armageddon Time by James Gray, Anthony Hopkins played an old Jew who is a survivor of childhood persecution. He also played in the movie One Life as British Jew Nicholas Winton during his early years who helped child refugees from Czechoslovakia escape to Great Britain during world war II. His performance in it is one of the finest he has ever had over the past few years: beautifully underplayed and free of idiosyncratic mannerisms and silly accents, it’s just a pity that the movie was not directed by him but rather by James Hawes with a script written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake that is slightly preachy and schematic. Nevertheless, this will not prevent it from going far to festivals and potentially being picked up for distribution as an older-audience fare especially in the U.K., where some seniors might recall what happened on That’s Life! TV show at 1988 when Winton became famous.

The title of this film originated from a Hebrew proverb which has been referred to several times before in Schindler’s List translating roughly into English as “Whoever saves one life saves the whole world”. Although some people have compared him to Oskar Schindler, the fact remains that he is nothing like Thomas Keneally’s fictional character or even Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of hit “Schindler’s List” novel. During World War II, Winton together with his mother Babi (portrayed here by Helena Bonham Carter) and friends from British Committee for Refugees managed to save 669 kids, mostly Jews, out of Prague via trains over to foster homes across United Kingdom before nazis closed down that escape route.

However, despite having saved these children and allowed them to live long enough so they could have own offspring Nicky Winton was still wracked with guilt about not having saved more according to her daughter Barbara wrote in the book that the movie was based on. At its best, this film serves as a reminder that every good deed or life saved is a mitzvah.

The following film therefore cuts back and forth between the 1980s of late and just before and immediately after World War II from 1938 when Sudetenland had been annexed. Nicky (played by Johnny Flynn who starred in recent movies like Emma and Beast) is a banker living in London in the pre-war part of the movie. He leads quite a comfortable life but starts taking interest in the refugee issue after his friend Trevor (Alex Sharp) tells him they cannot ski in Alps because he must help people avoid being killed by Nazis. However, Nicky arrives at Prague to meet Trevor anyway; such confrontation makes him feel for these folks, some of whom are living under canvas as winter approaches, so he decides to support them. He teams up with Trevor at The Committee as well as other strong-minded organizers such as Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) along with several regional committee members.

Nicky does not speak Czech and has no contacts of his own in Prague, however he is determined and understands paperwork. He knows that the best method for them would be to concentrate on the children with a hope that one day they could bring their parents out. Between him and his mother Babi, played as a typically Jewish mother by Bonham Carter, they manage to deal with British bureaucracy at their end, get foster families in Britain through publicity for those kids, and most importantly raise money.

The whole 1938-39 section is done efficiently using real locations in Prague which had fortunately dodged the worst of the war. Also, casting Czech kids also helps add credibility. However, it gets somewhat repetitive when we see these scenes with families crying and little ones looking terrified or sad on the platform at train stations. Given all the tearful goodbyes in locomotive steam as trains pull away, you might think this was some sort of historical film.

In some ways the scenes set in the 1980s are even more moving than Hopkins’ quiet performance allows for. From this point on Nicky’s Grete (Lena Olin) says she will only have what she needs clearing space for Christmas so he starts flipping through old scrapbooks where he kept records of his committee work; names of children earmarked for transport etc., all mixed up with photographs taken by himself. The future donation to a Holocaust museum perhaps crosses Nicky’s mind but he wants people who were mainly alive then and are still present today to hear about refugees somehow.

The book eventually finds its way into That’s Life! production office – Esther Rantzen used to host this show aired by BBC2 which provided its audience with a mix of whistle blowing exposés ,consumer tips and home videos featuring pets playing pranks reminiscent of an earlier age YouTube channel . Before going to see the show where he has been told they will talk about his time during the war, Nicky is invited to come sit in the audience. The real Nicky Winton himself can be seen on YouTube .as a matter of fact, the whole remarkable scene, and arguably it’s the way the film recreation mimics.

After this emotional high point, One Life struggles to know where to go next. Clearly, another happy ending is what the filmmakers want to leave us with and yet not as much as we would want considering how far we have gone into the Second World War stories here. This is one of those end credits which earn their upbeat tone by telling you what happened to everybody else.

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