Film Review: One Life (2023)

Sure to make anyone shed at least a tear, One Life is a beautifully judged piece of story-telling and film-making

“It wasn’t enough”

One for a cosy Sunday afternoon with a hot chocolate and a big box of tissues, it will be no surprise that One Life had me bawling like a baby. Written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake from Barbara Winton’s If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, it’s the kind of true story that you could scarcely believe actually happened. But happen it did, and it is beautifully translated into this understated but deeply affecting film by James Hawes.

Appalled by the stories coming out of Prague as floods of refugees tried to escape the advance of Nazi occupation, young London stockbroker Nicky Winton found himself unable to do nothing. Visiting Czechoslovakia in December 1938 and discovering the conditions that families were experiencing, he resolved to rescue as many Jewish children as he possibly could. Fifty years later, he remains haunted by the ones he wasn’t able to save.

One Life is a determinedly unshowy film and it is all the better for it. It switches between the two time periods throughout: a tightly wound Johnny Flynn scarcely believing the state of the world but resolved to make a difference, Anthony Hopkins achingly good as the older man struggling with the belief that it wasn’t enough. There’s heart-racing angst as he battles to get the final train out before the Nazis arrive and there’s heart-swelling beauty in the slow-emerging recognition of all that he achieved.

The latter happens in an extraordinary moment on the BBC light entertainment show ‘That’s Life’ – if you don’t know, I won’t spoil, but it is a beautiful moment of humanity at its finest, the kind of empathy one wishes was more prevalent when it comes to today’s conflicts. In 1938, Romola Garai’s Doreen Warriner (the head of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia) and Helena Bonham Carter’s no-nonsense Babette (Nicky’s mother) both stand out.

In 1988, Samantha Spiro is entertaining as Esther Rantzen, Jonathan Pryce pops up for a moment as an old pal, Lena Olin is gorgeous as Nicholas’s ever-patient wife Grete and there’s beautiful work in a single scene from Marthe Keller as Betty Maxwell (wife of Robert) whose gentle urging starts the chain reaction that leads to the finale. A beautifully judged piece of story-telling and film-making that deserves more attention and acclaim.

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