Unsung Holocaust Hero’s Shocking Story Revealed in ‘One Life’ – You Won’t Believe It!

In “One Life,” directed by James Hawes, scenes from World War II are brought to life in a unique way. The film shows children escaping from the horrors of refugee camps and the impending Nazi occupation, hopping on trains in Prague and heading towards England. This familiar wartime image is presented with a sense of optimism and hope, rather than the usual associated trauma.

The film tells the real-life story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton, a British stockbroker turned humanitarian who orchestrated the escape of 669 children from Czechoslovakia in 1939. The screenplay, written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, is based on a book penned by Winton’s daughter, Barbara Winton, titled “If It’s Not Impossible … the Life of Sir Nicholas Winton.” This film represents the first feature-length directorial venture for Hawes, known for his work on the first season of Apple TV+’s spy series, “Slow Horses.”

“One Life” juxtaposes two distinct periods in Winton’s life, separated by half a century. Anthony Hopkins portrays an older Winton in 1987, enjoying a quiet retirement with his wife, Grete, played by Lena Olin. Prompted by Grete, he uncovers an old scrapbook during an office cleanout, filled with records and remnants of his pre-war efforts to help refugee children. Unacknowledged for decades, his efforts remain a vivid memory as he sifts through old photographs of the children, now scattered across Britain.

Johnny Flynn gives life to a younger Winton, a stern, reserved man and the son of German Jewish immigrants who converted to Christianity to better assimilate into English society. Disturbed by news from the occupied Sudetenland, Winton takes a hiatus from his banking job to assist with refugee efforts in Prague. He quickly becomes dedicated to his mission of evacuating as many children as possible to England.

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Comparisons to “Schindler’s List” are fitting — Winton is often referred to as “the British Schindler.” The film may seem familiar, even formulaic, to audiences who have seen other films about World War II and the Holocaust. Hawes employs well-known imagery without exploiting the subject matter. The film’s emotional restraint can be frustrating, but it accurately represents Winton’s humble and understated character.

As Hopkins’ Winton grapples with what to do with his scrapbook, friends and acquaintances, such as Martin (Jonathan Pryce) and Elizabeth “Betty” Maxwell (Marthe Keller) — a Holocaust researcher and spouse of notorious media tycoon Robert Maxwell — underscore the significance of his humanitarian efforts. It’s only when Winton appears on a 1988 episode of British talk show “That’s Life!” that he begins to fully grasp the immense human impact of his actions, allowing emotion to seep through.

There is a quiet, understated beauty to Hawes’ work. The pre-war timeline offers a dependable rendition of World War II-era filmmaking, lending a comforting authenticity. While audiences may crave more raw emotion from Flynn’s portrayal of young Nicky, Hawes and his co-writers deliberately avoid delving into psychological explorations.

The focus is not on why Winton did what he did, but rather the fact that he did it at all. Driven by a strong moral compass instilled in him by his mother (Helena Bonham Carter), he uses his knack for paperwork to untangle the complex logistics of rescuing children from a dire situation. Winton and his friends, Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp), see themselves as ordinary people rallying other ordinary people to do something extraordinary — to save innocent lives caught in the throes of war.

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“One Life” unravels slowly, gradually revealing Winton’s humble character. When it finally reaches its climax, it presents a deeply touching depiction of genuine human kindness. The film draws its emotional depth not from the dramatic events of wartime, but from the long-lasting effects of Winton’s efforts. His story serves as a testament to the lasting impact that a few months of helping others can have, showing how 600 saved lives can grow into 6,000 and how one person can leave a lasting legacy.

Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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