One Life 2023 Movie Review
It seems strange that an actor of Anthony Hopkins’ prestige and acclaim would need a comeback so late in his career but for a few years, the Oscar-winner was stuck in a cycle of thankless sequel paycheques and one-word thrillers where the “and” credit was starting to lose its lustre (Collide! Solace! Misconduct! Blackway!). Within the space of a year he was then Oscar nominated for The Two Popes and won for The Father (his first Academy attention since 1998) and while it didn’t exactly curb his predilection for B-movies completely (in 2021 he started in Zero Contact, the first film to be released by an NFT platform), it did edge him back toward substance, with a subtle yet scene-devouring turn in James Gray’s Armageddon Time and now, another knockout performance in the second world war drama One Life.
The film might, at times, feel more like a BBC TV drama (it does come from BBC Films among others) with some pedestrian film-making touches but it builds towards a last act of towering emotion, with few dry eyes at its Toronto film festival premiere. It’s a story of radical bravery, of Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker gripped by a need to do something as Europe neared the start of the second world war. He headed to Prague in 1938, despite the cautions of his well-intentioned mother, and found himself immediately horrified by the situation so many of the young refugees were in, most unlikely to survive the winter. His plan to save them was dismissed as naive by those more hardened by what they had seen and what they had found not to be possible but he returned to London determined to help and with the assistance of his equally dogged mother, he started gathering visas and finding homes.
We see his work play out via flashbacks as the elder Winton sorts through files and papers he’s long been hoarding, much to the chagrin of his wife. Played by Johnny Flynn as a youth, he’s a man driven by an unstoppable need to help and as his older self, played by Hopkins, he’s a man haunted by never helping enough. Embarrassed by the idea of demanding attention for what he had done, he learned to almost bury it, telling himself that anyone would have acted in the same way and that thinking too much about it would cause him to focus on those who were left behind.
It’s an involving back-and-forth through time but in the scenes from the late 30s, small screen director James Hawes often struggles to visually distinguish his film from so many second world war dramas that have come before, reverting to the safety of his TV roots. Flynn is a convincingly obsessive problem-solver, with help from a steely Romola Garai in Prague (someone please give her a legal procedural already) and a tenacious Helena Bonham-Carter as his mother in London, and there’s an undeniable wrench from the familiar yet poignant images of little hands waving goodbye to parents they’re never going to see again. But it’s in the scenes from the late 80s, which slowly start to take centre stage, that the film finds more original footing, exploring with nuance the realities of living with the weight of doing so much yet thinking of it as so little.
Winton’s monumental accomplishment was kept hidden for years, buried away in a leather briefcase in his home, and as he slowly tries to find a way to share the documents that detail what he did (for historical and educational purposes rather than for anything involving his ego), his life and self-perception start to shift. It’s in these latter scenes, as Winton confronts his innate goodness and realises the weight of what he’s done, that the film truly soars. Key moments take place at recordings of BBC’s That’s Life, a show his wife laughs off as tacky, but there’s something about its unashamed sentimentality that starts to have an effect, suddenly hitting us as it does Hopkins, whose display of unearthed emotion is rather shattering, a man never thinking of himself as good enough finally realising he’s better than most of us. It’s a last act that brought down the house here in Toronto and will likely do the same upon release.