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‘One Life,’ Due in American Movie Theaters Starting Friday, Tells of the Kindertransport — Just in Time

Scott A. Shay

Mar 13, 2024

Telling a joke when everyone in the audience knows the punchline is a challenge. Director James Hawes pulls this trick off in “One Life,” while artfully managing to express quite another urgent punchline.

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Telling a joke when everyone in the audience knows the punchline is a challenge. Director James Hawes pulls this trick off in “One Life,” while artfully managing to express quite another urgent punchline. The film, opening March 15, tells the story of Nicholas (Nicky) Winton, portrayed in his younger years by Johnny Flynn in the film, during the heroic part of the story in the 1930s, and then by Anthony Hopkins in the grappling with guilt part of the story in the 1980s.

If this is already sounding a bit familiar, it is probably because you are one of the tens of millions of people who watched a clip on YouTube of Nicky Winton sitting in the studio audience of the British television show “That’s Life.” In this clip, he discovers that most of the rest of the audience owes their lives to him for saving them in a Kindertransport to England from almost certain death in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. 

Winton and his partners saved 669 children, mostly Jews. There are about 6,000 people alive today because of his efforts. Amazingly, this dramatic story became lost because of humility and guilt. “One Life” explores how this came to be and what it meant for those involved. The challenge in making a movie where the ending is well known is that everything prior to the recreation of the climactic scene can engender a mood of irritated anticipation.

The audience might just be munching popcorn, expectantly waiting for a satisfying payoff. Mr. Hawes steers viewers off of this track by putting the two periods of Winton’s life in a dialogue of sorts with each other. We learn about how he saved these children but also get a glimpse of  why and what he thought of it. Between Winton the younger and older, one wonders if has linked the genealogy of Messrs. Flynn and Hopkins.

Another reason for not wanting to get to the payoff too soon is to keep watching Anthony Hopkins. Having seen interviews with the real-life Nicky Winton, Mr. Hopkins does not just portray Winton, he somehow channels him. While the real-life Winton can be diffident, Mr. Hopkins, through his understated gestures and sheer silence, lets us know what Winton is feeling. He deserves to be nominated for an award for this role. 

Incidentally, the movie is based on a book by Winton’s daughter Barbara, who died in 2022. Barbara is said to have made one request to the producers of the movie — to get Anthony Hopkins to play her father. There are no videos of the younger version of Winton with which to compare Mr. Flynn, whose portrayal is also excellent.  Nicky’s mother, who is an important character as well, is portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter.

Ms. Bonham Carter manages to add a bit of humor to an otherwise serious story.  Her wardrobe is also a welcome break from the otherwise drab sartorial choices depicted of 1930s Britain. The presentation of the Jews of Prague and those who fled from there is also understated. The scenes in Prague must have been  filmed with hand- or shoulder-held cameras, which accentuates the sense of chaos at the beginning of the Nazi decimation of Europe. 

The directorial choice of imagery alternating between the two periods is purposely jarring. When the story goes to 1938 Prague from placid 1980s Britain, it is as though we viewers are being grabbed against our will back to that time. Winton, too, can’t seem to escape thinking about whether he could have done more. As the film closes, we understand that that true punchline is how much one ordinary person can accomplish with enough persistence.

Winton and his partners are the heroes of the story. This  immensely brave band of people that saved these children were not notably wealthy or well connected. Their only superpower was their doggedness. One of the movie’s producers, BBC Films, was reluctant to be associated with a film about persecuted Jews, though it has no problem with falsely accusing Jews of colonialism and apartheid.  

BBC’s original publicity highlighted that Winton had saved  “children from Central Europe,” apparently  embarrassed to be “platforming” an individual who thought that Jews ought to be saved from almost certain death. That kerfuffle has been resolved. It can now be proclaimed  that the BBC is fine with rescuing Jews in danger, as long as they are from 1938 Prague. See “One Life.”  You will come for the finale but leave thinking about your own one life.

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