Anthony Hopkins gives an unforgettable performance as Sir Nicholas Winton in the emotionally devastating One Life, which filmed in and around Prague in 2022 and opens in Czech cinemas this weekend ahead of a theatrical release in the United States from March 15. This disarmingly straightforward tale of an average man who helped save hundreds of lives is at first quietly moving, and ultimately devastating. Bring some tissues.
One Life stars Hopkins as Winton in 1987, living a modest life at an English cottage, collecting change for children’s charities and items donated to humanitarian organizations. Wife Grete (Lena Olin) urges Nicky to do some cleaning up before she embarks on a vacation, and especially in an overflowing study that houses documents including a 50-year-old scrapbook that stirs some memories.
Following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, London stockbroker Winton (played by Johnny Flynn in flashbacks) takes a humanitarian trip at the behest of friend Martin Blake (Ziggy Heath, and later Jonathan Pryce). In Prague, Winton visits makeshift camps filled with Jewish refugees, including families with young children who may not survive the upcoming winter.
The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia had been assisting refugees in efforts to emigrate to Britain, but the process is slow, and time is precious as the threat of war hangs in the air. Winton urges humanitarian workers including Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) and Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) to do everything they can to help the children, even if it means separating them from their families in order to transport them as soon as possible.
The rescue efforts as depicted in One Life are unusually modest, and don’t involve clashes with Nazi guards or underground subterfuge but instead photographs, stamps, and lists of names. Winton must convince both sides to cooperate: in Prague, families must give up their children and potentially their Jewish heritage, and in London, bureaucrats must expedite the visa process and foster parents must be located and kick in a £50 fee.
One Life is at its finest during quiet scenes of humanitarian appeal, including a moment when Winton’s mother (Helena Bonham Carter) tells an official about how she raised her son to do the right thing, and is simply asking him to follow suit. Winton and the others ultimately managed to save 669 children, mostly Jewish, though a final train carrying an additional 250 never made it out of Prague.
But interestingly, One Life is not as interested in the rescue efforts as it is in careful observation of this man, 50 years later, as he carries on with life amid memories of saving many, but not all. Working from a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, director James Hawes takes careful note of how Winton uses a misplaced button to pay for a train ticket, or grabs for a dinner mint before meeting an old friend. In one of his most quietly restrained performances, Hopkins is brilliant in conveying a lifetime of regret but also hope and humanity through a largely nondescript exterior.
One Life makes for a fascinating counterpart to Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-nominated The Zone of Interest, which stunningly depicted the day-to-day life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family as they go about their lives next to the camp, ignorant of the not-so-distant screams and roaring furnaces beyond their walls.
Where The Zone of Interest so precisely depicted what Hannah Arendt termed ‘the banality of evil’, One Life showcases the opposite: the banality of kindness. In depicting Winton in such modest and unassuming manner, the film reminds us that his heroism was not special some trait intrinsic to his character, but something that exists within us all.
Critics that met One Life with warm but muted praise after its premiere at fall film festivals last year may not be wrong in their assessment of the film’s artistic merit, but they may also be missing the point. This is not a story about great suffering and inhumanity, but a simple one about a single kind person. Much like its hero, One Life represents a quiet appeal to do good in this world, and on that level it will deeply resonate with almost anyone who has the pleasure of seeing it.
At the Czech premiere of One Life in Prague’s Kino Světozor, a humbled audience of hundreds stayed seated long after the credits rolled and the lights turned up. Nicholas Winton‘s story has been done justice here, and deserves to be spread as far as possible.