‘One Life’: A Holocaust Movie That’s More Inspiring Than Depressing

Anthony Hopkins plays Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Winston in ‘One Life’, the true story of a man who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Peter Mountain

Of all the recurring themes at the movies, none is less constant or more prolific than the Holocaust. Every year introduces a few new ones. But although the subject is forever a sober and thoughtful one (to my knowledge, no comedy has ever been made about it, unless you count The Producers and other well-deserved political pokes by Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny and Mel Brooks at Adolf Hitler, a subject ripe for ridicule if ever there was one) it’s worth remembering that not every film about the Holocaust (or, for that matter, World War II movies in general) is depressing beyond despair. Many are educational, historically illuminating and life-affirmingly positive. Into that category, add One Life, a noble, restrained and admirable footnote to history about Nicholas Winston, a mild-mannered British stockbroker with no driving political interests who saved hundreds of Jewish refugee children from Nazi extinction during the war without any military experience or otherwise personal knowledge about how to fight bureaucracy to improve a world in lethal danger of destruction. In another in a long line of memorable, effective and inspired performances that resonate with truth, Anthony Hopkins is a magnificent centerpiece.

ONE LIFE ★★(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: James Hawes
Written by: Lucinda Coxon, Nick Drake
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Lena Olin, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter
Running time: 110 mins.

In 1938, when skies over Europe were beginning to darken and the British were getting their first serious threats of German invasion, Winton started reading something in the daily papers besides the financial news. Increasingly unsettled by reports of innocent children killed in the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Winton made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join a group of British friends in Prague for a first-hand look at the fates of children victimized by their German invaders. Appalled by what he witnessed, the young Winton (played impressively in the first part of the film by Johnny Flynn) returned to London a changed man, determined to aid helpless refugees escape their cruel fates with decency and courage. 

Conscripting his indefatigable mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter), herself a German refugee, as his partner in what became years of raising funds, acquiring visas and breaking British laws to transport 669 unaccompanied children from Prague to the safety of the UK and keep them there. The film’s most harrowing scene occurs when the ninth train miraculously scheduled to arrive from Poland was destroyed and hundreds of children were forcibly removed, returned to their families, and destined for the concentration camps.  

Despite his phenomenal accomplishments, “Nicky” Winton remained humble and almost anonymous into his retirement years during the 1980s, when his ever-patient wife Greta (wonderful Lena Olin) finally pleaded with him to clean out the aging files gathering dust in his office. For the first time in years, he decluttered their home and, one by one, discovered long-buried folders containing the names of all the children he saved, sparking memories of his forgotten wartime efforts.  

The revelations in Winton’s scrapbooks had the inadvertent effect of reviving public interest in his heroism four decades earlier, culminating in a long-delayed celebration of his life-saving achievements on the BBC attended by scores of survivors from the war, now with children and families of their own, each compassionate tribute a cause for rejoicing. Well-written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, and a finely detailed debut feature by James Hawes, the film is so full of eye-opening information about England’s contribution to World War II that it’s surprising how doubly impactful it is in our own time. As we continue to grapple with today’s issues of war, refugee crisis and growing antisemitism, the film’s relevance is so troubling that you cannot fail to be moved by it. But to a greater and far-widening degree, One Life is a timeless reminder of how much farther we have to go and what a difference a single life can make.

Anthony Hopkins Is a Magnificent Centerpiece in ‘One Life’

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