One Life (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

March 15, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
One Life Poster

Since Sir Nicholas Winton was sometimes referred to in the press as “the British Schindler,” it seems altogether fair to call One Life a Schindler’s List-lite. Anchored by a strong performance from double Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as a 78-year old version of the humanitarian, the movie focuses on two distinct periods in Winton’s life, including an earlier one set on the eve of World War II when he became instrumental in transporting 669 mostly-Jewish children from Prague to London to escape the seeming inevitability of death at the hands of the SS. The screenplay is based on the 2014 biographical book written by Winton’s daughter, Barbara, who was a tireless promoter of her father’s life and legacy until her untimely death in 2022.

The movie opens in late 1987 with Winton clearing out his home office and revisiting happenings of 50 years earlier. Those events, presented in flashback with the 29-year old protagonist played by Johnny Flynn, detail his involvement in what became known as the Kindertransport. He first visits Czechoslovakia in 1938 and is shocked by the conditions endured by the poor (especially the children). After meeting Doreen Warriner (Ramola Garai), the head of the Prague office of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and her co-workers, Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) and Hana Hejdukova (Juliana Moska), Winton embarks on an ambitious program to save Jewish children by transporting them to England via train and giving them temporary placement with foster families until either they come of age or can be reunited with their parents. Obstacles abound, however, not the least of which are bureaucratic red-tape and a high financial cost. With the potential of war looming, Winton recognizes that the clock is ticking.

By 1987, all this is well-behind Winton. He and his wife Grete (Lena Olin) are expecting their first grandchild. But, as he digs through the detritus of the past, he discovers a notebook that he wants to place with a library or museum. This sets up a chain of events that result in Winton appearing on the popular U.K. nighttime TV show, That’s Life!, where his cloak of anonymity is lifted and he is reunited with several of the now-adult children he helped rescue. His chief lament, like that of Oskar Schindler, is that he didn’t do more. Hopkins’ presentation of Winton’s grief in this matter is more subdued than the overwrought interpretation delivered by Liam Neeson in Steven Spielberg’s movie.

Although Schindler’s List and One Life are connected by thematic and history-related specifics, they are very different movies. One Life is a more restrained, contemplative film. One might argue, in fact, that it is too understated across-the-board. It doesn’t spend much time on the ground in 1930s Europe and declines to depict atrocities. Opportunities for suspense and tension go untapped. The flashbacks, despite representing the meat of the story, feel more like inserts designed to provide background. The material in the 1980s is less interesting and gets as much screen time as it does because that’s when Hopkins is around. The movie has one big feel-good moment but then insists on sticking around for a while longer; apparently director James Hawes didn’t realize the optimal time to say goodbye had passed.

Winton’s fame has become a debated topic since his role in the Kindertransport was revealed on national television in 1988. Some believe the press accorded him too much credit for the rescues, since it was the members of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia who took all the risks while Winton remained in England with his mother, Babi (Helena Bonham Carter). This is a point that Winton raises on more than one occasion during the film when he attempts to deflect credit to the others, all of whom have died by 1988. (In most group efforts, the one who lives longest is the one who receives the lion’s share of adulation.)

One Life feels like something straight out of the 1990s when many low-key, non-U.S. dramas were being embraced by art house devotees and more adventurous multiplex visitors. The movie is neither showy nor ostentatious. It tells a story in a workmanlike fashion that allows viewers to learn a little bit more about the central figure and why his life is deserving of a big-screen treatment. We don’t get many movies of this sort in today’s climate so, although One Life isn’t the best thing to come along thus far in 2024, its arrival is nevertheless welcome.

One Life (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2024-03-15
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1