One Life ★★★★★

One Life, the true story of Sir Nicholas Winton who helped rescue 669 children from the Nazis in the months leading up to World War II, feels a timely cinema release.

Save one life, save the world.’ This is the Hebrew saying on which the film’s title is based, and for anyone who is unfamiliar with the incredible story of Nicholas Winton, he saved not just one but many hundreds of children’s lives in 1939, enabling many Austrian, Czech and German children to be evacuated from the impending horrors of war and fostered by families in the UK.

All images by See Saw Films

The film begins in the ‘present day’: Maidenhead, 1987. Nicholas Winton (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is driving home with a number of charity collection tins on the passenger seat. We see him in the kitchen, swimming in his pool, burning a collection of files that have been cluttering the dining room and study to the frustration of his wife Grete (Lena Olin)…  So far, so humdrum. But then we are drawn back to a satchel with the initials T.C. on it; and so begins the story of how 29 year old stockbroker Winton (Johnny Flynn) takes a ‘phone call from his friend Martin that leads to him taking a week out of work to visit Czechoslovakia, a country that his mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter) remarks “everyone else is trying to get out [of] and my son is intent on going in.”

It is 1938, Hitler’s Nazi Expansionism is beginning and the party has control of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Thousands of people flee to Prague for safety, but soon enough the Germans take control and time is against Nicky and his newly formed children’s section of the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia headed by the determined Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and stoic Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) with help from a team of Czech volunteers including Hana (Juliana Moska). Somehow, against the odds but aided by a letter printed in The Times, a small team in London headed by the indomitable Babette ensure that foster families are found for the myriad of refugee children and piles of visas are signed off. Even those willing to take a child but unable to find the £50 bond required were covered by a deluge of donations from organisations including the Girl Guides, allowing the group to book the first of 9 trains (what would become known as ‘Kindertransport‘) from Prague to Liverpool Street (via ferry).

There is no denying that the situation is bleak, but just as we feel it is too much, we jump back to 1987 and a much needed anecdote from Nicky about his time working for The Samaritans. This movement between eras allows us space to breathe while also giving us juxtaposition: none of the acting is showy, even in the most emotional of scenes, yet it is this quietness of character which makes it all the more devastating when war breaks out and best laid plans go awry. Even though most of us know of the famous ‘That’s Life!‘ segment and therefore pre-empt what happens next, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the scale of what Nicky and his friends had achieved, something only emphasised at the end of the film when text on screen suggests that 6000 people have lived as a result of the team’s actions in 1939.

Nicholas Winton died in 2015 at the age of 106, yet he never felt that he deserved thanks or praise. This film gives him that, and without shine or adulation. It is not an easy watch, but they were not easy times; and it is a film that will live long in the memory, as it should.

A pitch-perfect script by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, directed sensitively by James Hawes and soundtracked emotively by Volker Bertelmann, make this one not to miss.

A ★★★★★ 5-star film for one exceptional life

One Life

One Life is in cinemas now