One Life review — An ordinary tale of good deeds done

Directed by James Hawes | Written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, based on If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton | 110 min | ▲▲△△△ | In Cinemas

Younger readers might not remember the  “Made-For-TV Movie,” which in production circles also used to be called an MOW, or Movie-Of-The-Week. It was a modestly budgeted drama that would run, often on Sunday nights, with commercial breaks on network television. Never troubling the idea of art, these pictures would sometimes tell true life stories in the most conventional way, trading in sentiment in an attempt to make its audience a little misty. One Life is the model of one of these movies, except up on the big screen.

It’s a Second World War drama that splits its focus, with half its time set 50 years after. One Life manages to tell an important story based on actual events, but filmmakers aren’t much concerned with creativity in the storytelling — with the possible exception of the craft departments. Period sets and costumes are well done. The performers do quality work, too. The wily master, Anthony Hopkins, is, as usual, entirely watchable, along with the rest of the cast.

Hopkins is Nicky Winton, who lives in some comfort in the English countryside with his wife, Grete (Lena Olin). But he’s haunted by his past — he’s a Schindler-esque figure who wishes he could have done more.

Flashback to late-’30s Eastern Europe, where he’s Johnny Flynn on a business trip, discovering Prague as a serious refugee problem. Jewish children are living in the streets, forced to leave neighbouring countries by the threat of the Nazis. Winton teams up with a few British ex-pats (Alex Sharp and Romola Garai both make an impression) and his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) back in Blighty to help gets trainloads of these kids across the channel and into British foster homes.

“These are children who are starving, who are homeless,” says someone, telling rather than showing. The takeaway here is that a lot of people, including individual bureaucrats in institutional settings, did the right thing, No one was xenophobic, everyone was a human being who went out of their way to care for other human beings because they were all good people — a British myth Brexit crushed.

On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with a well-meaning story of ordinary heroism, but it can seem irrelevant, antiquated, or even when telling a story of the Holocaust, exploitative. In the shadow of Oscar-winner The Zone Of Interest, movies like this can feel entirely anachronistic.

If One Life‘s heart is in the right place, it’s because Hopkins makes us feel it. He’s able to communicate his regret in his body language, in his vocal inflections. The movie needs him in order to work, as much as it is able.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.