A movie made for fans of tear-jerking viral clips and Anthony Hopkins, One Life tells the story of Sir Nicholas Winton — often dubbed the “British Schindler” — in two distinct timelines. In 1938, a young Winton (Johnny Flynn) travels from London to Prague to assist refugee efforts on the eve of World War II. Fifty years later, and still carrying the guilt of those he wasn’t able to save, an older Winton (Hopkins) attempts to finally reckon with the weight of the past, which inadvertently leads him to being invited as a guest on the British talk show That’s Life. His appearance made his story public, but it was a moving viral clip of the episode that made it globally-known in 2009.
The combination of Hopkins’ casting and the potent subject matter makes One Life instantly intriguing, especially as a movie that builds to a recognizable moment often shared online. For the most part, it’s a simple, straightforward war drama, whose bifurcated structure allows Hopkins to tug at the heartstrings. However, the way it approaches the events of the clip are a surprising extension of the film’s more complicated moments. Its final act is, as expected, incredibly moving, but first-time feature filmmaker James Hawes isn’t content with wrapping things up in a neat and comfortable bow.
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One Life hops back and forth in time
In 1988, Hopkins’ version of Winton wanders aimlessly around his quaint country home when he isn’t out collecting charity donations for local children. He has a frank and matter-of-fact disposition with his wife, Grete (Lena Olin), displaying subtle impatience during any moment he isn’t helping someone else. Perhaps it’s a strange psychological outcome of his time in the metaphorical trenches, but when we first meet Winton in the 1930s, he behaves much the same way, as if he were somehow predisposed to survivor’s guilt.
Part of it has to do with his principled mother, Babi (Helena Bonham Carter), and her stories of their family escaping Germany for London in the 1870s in the wake of rising antisemitism. All of Winton’s grandparents were Jewish, but he was baptized, and his family later changed their name from Wertheim to Winton to avoid German associations during World War II. He’s a man whose identity is in flux, except for his innate Good Samaritan drive. So, he leaves his cozy stockbroker job behind and travels to Czechoslovakia — a state on the verge of Nazi occupation — if only to help with the paperwork at a refugee camp.
Helena Bonham-Carter plays Winton’s mother, Babi.
Credit: See-Saw Films
However, for Winton, the bare minimum isn’t enough, and a first-hand look at the condition of the local children spurs him into action. He is, in some ways, in over his head as a newcomer, but if something isn’t done soon, hundreds if not thousands of kids may not survive the oncoming winter, or worse.
The frenzy of young Winton working to organize rescue trains and corresponding with English foster families makes up a good chunk of the flashback scenes, which are awash in grim hues of blue and grey. However, its 1980s timeline is entirely different, between its more summery appearance, its lengthy, quiet stretches, and its contemplative tone. The past is about action, the present about thought, and One Life as a whole is about their interplay. It occasionally presents this dynamic in soulful fashion, with a handful of cuts between the timelines that create or enhance meaning — at one point, the older Winton recalls vital moments when he’s submerged in water and needs to come up for air — though after a while, it settles into a mechanical rhythm, cutting back and forth between the ’30s and the ’80s practically at random.
However, even when the movie’s aesthetic and narrative connective tissue dissolves, a vital thread continues to connect the two timelines together: its lead performances.
Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn complement each other’s work
One Life’s two versions of Winton are sides to a coin, and the actors playing him bounce effortlessly off each other despite never sharing the screen. Flynn, though he’s saddled with the lion’s share of the movie’s action and urgency, seems to allow Hopkins to dictate the character’s broad outline, from his hesitant dawdle, to the hints of sing-song Welsh intonation that permeate nearly every character he plays. Flynn is, in essence, embodying a younger Hopkins and modulating his impersonation to fit Winton’s sincerity.
Johnny Flynn plays a young Winton.
Credit: See-Saw Films
However, since the two Wintons live on opposite sides of World War II, there’s a clear distinction between them that goes far beyond their physical appearances. Flynn’s eyes, for instance, betray a sense of optimism, and perhaps even naivete. Hopkins’, on the other hand, seem constantly weighed down by forces and memories just off-screen. His eyes are so alluring that Hawes uses extreme closeups of his gaze to open the film, as the aged Winton inspects old photographs of some of the children he rescued, perhaps wondering what became of them.
Hopkins’ version of the character also feels constantly torn, despite his calm and personable demeanor. He seems in constant, silent anguish over his little corner of history not being widely known — though in making it known, he knows he runs the risk of making it about himself. This is, perhaps, where Hawes and Hopkins end up diverging slightly; the film, as written and shot, seems to frame Winton as almost supernaturally noble. It roots his rejection of the spotlight in a down-to-earth-humility that everyone around him seems to recognize. However, Hopkins’ performance is so piercing and multifaceted that it practically transcends this simple approach. He’s so good at what he does that he nearly breaks the film, or at the very least, warps it around him (editor Lucia Zucchetti follows suit, holding on Hopkins’ close ups for long, introspective stretches, as if she were reading his thoughts).
Where the camera and dialogue capture the surface of his conundrum — the idea that Winton doesn’t want to make this painful chapter about himself — Hopkins probes further into this decision, wrestling with it with every word, glance, and gesture. As a delayed fuse of sorts, Winton’s decision to withhold information for so long is the reason the movie’s 1980s timeline exists at all, and his desire to find the right outlet or angle for the story is what keeps this history secret. Each time Winton acts nobly or commendably, and each time he’s complimented for it, Hopkins responds politely, but with a lingering discomfort, as if humility is (at least in part) a mask he wears over something shamefully human.
In his public appearances, the real Winton never once hinted at a desire for recognition, and Hopkins by no means chooses to hold a genuine hero to account. However, practically single-handedly, the actor rescues One Life from the brink of hagiography by introducing thorny paradoxes to the character, which turn every one of his scenes and interactions into an emotional highwire act. It’s a must-watch performance on par with his Oscar-winning role in The Father, as he makes a meal out of the subtle ways in which an elderly gentleman who’s seen untold horrors (and has bottled them all up) might bristle at the thought of his internal contradictions or of a spotlight being cast on them — contradictions that only grow and fester by the end.
One Life takes an unexpected approach to a famous viral clip
Another key contradiction in One Life is that of Winton’s German-Jewish identity, two parts of his history which had, at various points, been buried and disguised. In Prague, both come rushing to the fore at once, between Jewish refugees approaching him with fear and caution because of his Germanic features, and a rabbi probing at his Jewish roots to figure out whether he truly wants to help — and if so, his reasons.
The inherent irony of Winton’s heroism — as the rabbi points out — is that it would involve separating young Jewish children from their families and their culture, an act that inadvertently falls in line with the Nazis’ credo. “Do not start what you cannot finish,” the rabbi tells him, translating it from Hebrew. In lieu of a more tangible connection to Judaism, this stern advice becomes his lifelong mantra, so much so that it lingers with him for decades after the war. After his chat with the rabbi, rescuing refugees from Prague becomes not just an altruistic act, but a divinely inspired one — a holy burden with no expiration date.
Living with this burden is what makes Winton so compelling in the film’s 1980s segments. It is the movie’s ultimate contradiction: the idea that he cannot rest without closure and self-forgiveness for being unable to do more than was humanly possible. And so, when it comes time for him to take the spotlight, and for the events in the viral video clip to make their way to the screen, they don’t arrive with the sense of storybook finality with which That’s Life presents them. They feel, instead, jagged and uneven, and they rob the movie of what might have otherwise been a picture-perfect “happy ending” akin to most awards-bait period films.
Hopkins, as expected, digs harrowingly deep into the character during the concluding act, as he lets all of Winton’s guilt and anguish seep to the surface. However, even his release of pent-up emotion doesn’t yield the kind of cinematic catharsis that often follows such scenes. Instead of a crescendo, One Life’s depiction of Winton’s famous clip feels like an open wound left to fester — one that cannot be easily healed by naked displays of sentiment for public consumption. And so, it feels more true to life than most cinematic depictions of war and its lingering aftermaths, in ways likely to leave its audience stewing with discomfort amid their tears.
During the film, Winton often claims he wants people to learn from his story, and while One Life takes a long while to resemble something remotely instructive, it does so in an especially meaningful way: by leaving us to carry the same burdens and the same uncertainty he once did, with no end in sight.
One Life was reviewed out of its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.