One Life

One of the more extraordinary films out of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was ironically extraordinary. “One Life” could easily have been another World War II survival film full of heroes and do-gooders. It’s certainly a film with familiar themes and patterns, yet the performance from two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in a present-day supporting role is emotionally captivating. A crowd pleaser, the press screening back in September left hardly a dry eye. Warner Brothers decided to push the film, which could have awards potential, to a 2024 release. “One Life” is an engaging piece of history, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary man who saved hundreds of children.

In 1937, a young Nicholas Winton (Johnny Flynn) was an average stockbroker from London. As the news grew dire about the eminent Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, he put his own life on hold in 1938 to witness a devastating situation in Prague in person. He assembles a group of people raising efforts to rescue children from the country and bring them to Great Britain by train. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) was back home, working around the clock through connections and red tape to ensure the children could be safely and legally moved from one country to another. Now a senior (Hopkins), he reflects on those he couldn’t save; that one train that went missing haunts his dreams.

The editing for this film is quite key to its success. Film editor Lucia Zucchetti (“Testament of Youth,” “Colette“) keeps Hopkins, who you likely paid to see, on-screen while the main story, set in the past, informs the audience of what this man did. It’s a risky editing task that Lucia Zucchetti navigates quite successfully. The film’s suspense and action take place in wartime segments, a gripping retelling of a small segment of history. Hopkins has and can play everything from scary, heroic, jolly, and demented. As Nicholas Winton, he is subdued most gently. His expressions and the way he portrays a distracted sense of focus speak volumes, allowing the audience to empathize with what must have been going on in Winton’s memory.

The entire film’s message is of hope and resilience and that one person can, in fact, make a difference in the lives of many. While the filmmaking might not be groundbreaking, and the ideals and triumphs steadfast for the genre, it’s nearly impossible to resist the film’s emotional pull. Even when you are aware of the strings being plucked to make you feel something, the film never rings false. We have seen intentional films fail so often, but this one works. Director James Hawes’s jump from television work to feature films brings the right temperament and skill to a movie with an episodic feel from 1938 to 1987.

Final Thought

An emotional, by-the-numbers World War II film that happens to be an excellent emotional, by-the-numbers World War II film.


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