Nicholas Winton saved 669 lives during World War II and “ONE LIFE” is in tribute to him | Film Review

Hebrew scripture says, “he who saves one life saves the world entire.” At the beginning of World War II, Nicholas Winton was instrumental in the complex relocation of 669 mostly Jewish children, moving them from Czechoslovakia to Britain, the operation known as kindertransport. The true story is fascinating. Director James Hawes’s “One Life,” the telling of Winton’s story, is a somewhat staid but occasionally emotional film that should have nevertheless hit deeper.

Written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake (based on the book “If it’s Not Impossible… The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton” by his daughter Barbara), the film certainly has an emotional pull. Still, director Hawes never seems to reach deep enough into the drama. While some scenes hit, the overall style gives the film an almost “Cliff’s Notes” structure.

“One Life” moves back and forth from the young Winton (a commendable Johnny Flynn) planning and carrying out his efforts to save the children and the older Winton (Anthony Hopkins), now in his seventies and living a peaceful life with his wife, Grete (Lena Olin, needing a bit more to do) in the English town of Maidenhead.

The picture opens with Winton puttering around the house. Hopkins expertly captures a man lost in memories that will never leave him. While he saved hundreds of children, there were many more just out of his grasp who weren’t so fortunate. Winton’s remembrances are in the stacks of files that litter his study and in the quiet reserve in which he exists. When Grete goes on a trip, Winton promises to clean the house of the clutter, but the memories are everywhere. The faces of the children he saved and those he couldn’t remain, walking beside him as ghosts of a generation he fought to save.

Sir Anthony Hopkins is innocent of any wrongdoing here. The actor’s turn is as realistic as it is gracefully respectful. You can see on his face the regret that has worn Winton down. He is a savior, but no one knows, as he chose not to boast or have his story told. Hopkins gives one of his most humanly subtle and touching performances in years. It is excellent work from one of cinema’s finest.

After a popular British talk show blindsided Winton by having him sit in the front row, unknowingly next to one of the children he saved, Winton’s reaction is devastating. In a later scene (with Marthe Keller), where Winton speaks of the regret for the children he could not save, he delivers only two softly spoken words, “Bloody Hitler.” At this moment, Anthony Hopkins will break your heart.

The screenplay shows how dangerously complicated it was for Winton to do what he achieved. The moments with his colleagues, Alex Sharp (Trevor Chadwick) and Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) are given a too-hurried pace and seem to desire a thriller aura rather than a nail-biting drama based on fact. The scenes of Winton and company risking it all to achieve financing for the children’s visas don’t hold a candle to the tension of watching Oscar Schindler and Itzhak Stern scrambling to save the “Schindler Jews” in the Steven Spielberg film “SCHINDLER’S LIST.” We don’t get to know the younger Nicholas Winton beyond his actions, and the film cannot generate the proper emotion from the flashback structure.

Director Hawes and his cinematographer Zac Nicholson (and production designer Christina Moore) capture the era of Winton’s early life, but it is a straightforward presentation; the look of the pre-World War II scenes fails to achieve the coming menace from a city on the brink of Nazi occupation.

The film ends quite beautifully. On another episode of the BBC show that brought his story to the masses, Winton is surprised to learn the entire audience is filled with many of the children he saved. It is a terrific moment that pulls at the heartstrings. If only the film that came before could have been as powerful.

Nicholas Winton was a hero whose selfless courage ensured many would live. Still, “One Life,” a good enough film with a moving performance from Anthony Hopkins, doesn’t reach its potential, for the memory of Sir Nicholas Winton deserved a more powerful telling.