Director James Hawes (Black Mirror, Slow Horses) has made a straightforward but nonetheless affecting film about Sir Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who believed in common decency, and was therefore inspired to get as many refugee children out of Prague as humanly possible before the Nazis occupied the city and the borders were closed. Together with his colleagues he successfully organised visas, funds and foster homes, and managed to get over six hundred children out - many of them Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany and the occupied Sudetenland. It is unquestionable that if they had remained the vast majority would have been murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
The film alternates between two time-lines. In wartime Prague, we have Johnny Flynn (EMMA) playing the straightforwardly efficient, decent, emphatic Nicky Winton. We also get the treat of seeing Helena Bonham-Carter reprise her now oft-seen role of indomitable woman who will not be gainsaid, playing his mother. We see how it was a team effort, with brave colleagues staying behind in Prague under the shadow of Nazi arrest - not least Romola Garai playing Doreen Warriner and Alex Sharp playing Trevor. In this section, the costumes, locations and atmosphere are all scrupulously well put together and we absolutely feel the tension of getting these kids out before the borders close.
In the 1980s timeline we see a now old Nicky Winton nagged by his lovely wife (Lena Olin) to clear out all of his old paperwork and find a suitable home for his scrapbook showing all his work in Prague. By chance, Robert Maxwell's wife comes to hear of it and gets it to Maxwell and into the press. (One forgets that before Maxwell became a monster he was actually a very courageous Jewish refugee who fought for the Czech partisans before making his way to England and helping the Allied war effort). This leads to the iconic and deeply moving creation (and recreation here) of the Esther Rantzen show That's Life where a humble Nicky Winton is surprised to meet the now grown up children he had saved. I defy anyone not to be moved to tears by this: I am crying once again writing about it now.
There is a simple beauty in the idea of ordinary people doing good. And before one imagines this to be a poe-faced earnest film I assure you that's is also entertaining. There's a wonderful scene where Anthony Hopkins, playing the older Nicky Winton, has lunch with his old pal Martin, played by Jonathan Pryce, and it fees so effortless, mischievous, and fun.
The way in which this film has been made and directed is not radical or revolutionary, and neither does it have to be. The story itself is powerful enough and concisely and expertly handled by writers Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL) and Nick Drake. It has also never been of more relevance, as we grapple with our own refugee crises and tragically renewed anti-semitism. As an audience in the Royal Festival Hall, we were witness to the incredibly moving site of some of the children Nicky saved, and their children and grandchildren, standing up and bearing witness to what had occurred. How horrific that the BFI had to arrange extra security and bag checks. How horrific that in my home city, in 2023, this is necessary. For that reason, and for the film's inherent worth, I truly hope it is seen by as wide an audience as possible.
ONE LIFE has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023. It opens in the UK on January 1st 2024.