Review: Post-War Drama One Life Recounts One Ordinary Man’s Extraordinary Efforts and Their Generational Ripple Effects

Based on the book If It's Not Impossible?: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton, One Life is a true story about an elderly man who is forced to grapple with memories almost against his will. These aren’t what we would traditionally think of as terrible memories; in fact, what Nicholas “Nicky” Winton did when he went to visit Prague in December 1938 was rather heroic. But not unlike Oskar Schindler, Winton’s pain comes from wishing he could have done more.

When the Nazis had just moved into this part of Czechoslovakia and before they started deporting people (mostly Jews) to concentration camps from the region, Winton (played as a younger man by Johnny Flynn) and a group known as the British Committee for Refugees built something of an underground railroad (more like an actual railroad) to rescue as many children as possible before the Germans closed the borders. The children were shipped to the UK, where Winton and his associates had to find them foster homes and guarantee that each family could afford to house them for an extended period—a weighty, near-impossible task that was somehow made possible thanks to generous donations and understanding bureaucrats.

All of this is being remembered 50 years later by Winton as an old man (Anthony Hopkins), who is cleaning out old paperwork in his office when he comes across a scrapbook of sorts that includes many memories from this time in his life. His wife (Lena Olin) suggests that he donate the book to a museum or library, but when word gets out about this largely unknown footnote of the war before Britain’s formal involvement, journalists start calling. That includes someone from one of the most popular BBC shows at the time, “That’s Life!,” which coordinates something extraordinary to honor Winton’s accomplishments and help him come to grips with the guilt he’s carried for most of his life.

Directed by James Hawes (who helmed the first season of the series Slow Horses, among many other prestige shows), One Life is a quietly beautiful little movie with a great number of weighty emotions. There are moments of low-grade tension, but the film primarily wants to profile this small group of people who made an immeasurable difference. The group managed to rescue nearly 700 children, but the film acknowledges that the people that are here today because of Winton’s efforts number at least in the thousands. Among those assisting Winton in his efforts are Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) and Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai), both of whom recognize that Winton’s strength is in bookkeeping and organizing, and they are able to tap into those skills to make the operation a success. Helena Bonham Carter is a standout as Babi Winton, Nicky’s mother, who takes care of certain things early on as he establishes this network, and it’s clear from watching her where Nicky got his perseverance.

One Life is a solid example of historical storytelling that doesn’t need artificially heightened drama to get its points across. The truth is dramatic and moving enough, and Hopkins' and Flynn’s performances beautifully blend to paint a nicely crafted portrait of an ordinary man driven to do extraordinary things. He was met with resistance by his own country and in Czechoslovakia, and he basically just found a way to ignore or look through all of it without drawing too much attention to himself. Winton was an understated hero, the likes of which simply don’t exist today.

The film is now playing in theaters.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.