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One Life

By Andy Howell | September 15, 2023

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! One Life, directed by James Hawes and written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, is based on the true story of Nicholas Winton. He was a British stockbroker who saved hundreds of children from death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Anthony Hopkins plays Nicky as an older man in the late 1980s, when his wife, Grete (Lena Olin), gets annoyed at him for being too much of a pack rat. When his wife goes away, Nicky decides to surprise her by cleaning out his office, which stirs up old memories.

We then flashback to Nicky (Johnny Flynn, bearing just enough resemblance and intensity to a young Hopkins to be plausible) as a younger man. After hearing about refugees fleeing the Nazis and ending up in Prague, he investigates. Once there, he sees children suffering and dying in refugee camps and concocts an audacious plan to get the children out by train and adopted temporarily by foster families in the UK.

Nicky is aided in England by his tenacious mother, Babette (Helena Bonham Carter), who harangues the bureaucracy enough to give the plan a chance for success. Meanwhile, over in Czechoslovakia, other volunteers are working to get the paperwork and logistics done to get the children on the trains. Meanwhile, some of the most dangerous work was done by Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) because he had to secure visas from the Gestapo.

“…concocts an audacious plan to get the children out by train and adopted temporarily by foster families in the UK.”

While you’d think all the drama would lie in the WWII era, One Life is split fairly equally between the two timelines. This is partially because Hopkins is astounding at portraying a man of subtle reflection. His scenes in the present are completely convincing for what an Englishman several decades removed from the war would be like. The writing and directing deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the restraint shown. This grounds the story and sets it up for profound scenes, which I won’t spoil. It is particularly impressive that this is Hawes’ first feature, though he’s had a remarkable TV career, having directed episodes of shows such as Black Mirror and Slow Horses.

The film can’t help but have echoes of Schindler’s List — after all, this is a man who saved hundreds of people from certain deaths and yet can’t help but regret that he couldn’t have done more. Yet, the drama is far from a Spielberg affair. By that, I mean there is no artifice, no apparent hand of the director telling you what you should think.

Of course, this is an illusion — this is a movie, and its stock and trade is getting to us emotionally. One Life accomplishes this by believing in its source material. The story itself is so powerful it needs no amplification. The director trusts Sir Anthony Hopkins to step in and deliver, which he does. He plays it so subdued at the beginning that when the emotional dam breaks, the audience cries like a baby. It is impossible not to, but it isn’t all sadness. You will cry tears of joy at witnessing the incredible potential of the human spirit.

One Life is a perfect movie. I can easily see Anthony Hopkins getting a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for it. But that doesn’t matter; I only mention it so people realize this is an important film they must see. It will give you a new appreciation for humanity at its greatest. That’s something we could all use a little of.  

One Life screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

One Life (2023)

Directed: James Hawes

Written: Lucinda Coxon, Nick Drake

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter, etc.

Movie score: 10/10

One Life Image

"…trusts Sir Anthony Hopkins to step in and deliver, which he does."

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