The Holocaust has been mined for kitschy platitudes for a long time now. It seems that artists, against their best instincts, just aren’t able to resist the allure of extracting cheap sentiment from the emotionally fraught subject matter. Even Steven Spielberg succumbed to this urge in his otherwise great Schindler’s List. British drama One Life is a diminished facsimile, narrating the real-life tale of stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who, in 1938, helped 669 Jewish children get British visas and move out of Czechoslovakia — just before the Nazis arrived. Once in the U.K., the children were taken in by foster families. If One Life isn’t exactly a Holocaust film, then, it’s Holocaust-adjacent and is constructed to function like one. We see Winton (Johnny Flynn) strategizing with his partners in Prague, meeting with the Jewish families, collecting details about their children, fundraising for the visas back in London, filling out forms, petitioning the immigration office, advertising for foster families, and then matching kids with them. The prospect of the Nazi invasion looms as a constant threat over the entire enterprise.
All the familiar images that we have come to expect from films of this ilk are present: people in period clothing living in squalid conditions, inserts of forms being stamped, trains packed with desperate people, anxious pacing on railway stations, etc. Along the way, speeches are made about the importance of human life, hearts and minds of good British people are changed, and there are tearful partings and reunions. The film is so devoid of tension, suspense, or artfulness that its 1938 segments often play like the low-budget reenactments snuck into History Channel documentaries about World War-era Europe, and its pedestrian, televisual filmmaking and perfunctory staging suggest it as a better fit for a BBC weeknight special rather than a theatrical motion picture. Even the presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins can’t save the film from its patently TV roots.
Hopkins plays Winton in the 1980s, living a quiet life with his wife Grete (Lena Olin), until the discovery of his past deeds becomes the story du jour for the general public; forgotten until this point, Winton’s efforts to find an archival home for the paperwork concerning the operation brings it to light some 40 years later. Directed by James Hawes, it seems the primary reason for One Life’s existence is the recreation of a very famous real-life moment in British television history that followed this story’s resurrection: an episode of the consumer affairs program That’s Life, where the tale of Winton’s efforts to rescue the children was recounted. In a moment staged for maximum television ratings, Winton was seated in the audience and introduced to a middle-aged woman, once a child who Winton had saved decades earlier. The host then asked everyone in the audience if anyone else was either a kid that Winton had saved or a descendant of one, and the entire audience stood up.
One Life’s presentation of this moment is staged much the same way and for much the same reason by Hawes: namely, to elicit easy waterworks from an audience. The soaring score, thunderous applause, and teary reaction shots complete the act of manipulation. The extended 1980s portions, perhaps enlarged to center Hopkins’ presence in the film, creates a fundamental imbalance, as Hawes seems to posit that the recognition of a great deed is more valuable than the deed itself; this approach will certainly provide fodder to historians who have criticized the deification of Winton by the general public. Indeed, academics Laura E. Brade and Rose Holmes have expressed their concerns at length in their paper “Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940,” writing that Winton “accompanied no trains, made no travel arrangements, never encountered the Gestapo or any personal danger, did not use his own money and, most importantly, did not act alone. We should not reduce the account to just one saint.”
Hopkins, Olin, and Helena Bonham-Carter (as Winton’s mother in the 1938 scenes) deliver typically competent performances amidst the unflattering narrative approach, but Flynn is exceptionally flat and seems to have been directed to embody only two attributes: niceness and goodness. German composer Volker Bertelmann (All Quiet On The Western Front) contributes a fine score that would work best in a vacuum, as it is here so incessantly applied to paper over the film’s shortcomings and emphasize its saccharine beats that it comes across as overly insistent. It’s also important to note that this material was already recounted in the Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Audiences unfamiliar with this saga might be able to find some value in the unnecessary, maudlin, and schmaltzy One Life, but they would still be better served by the canon of other works documenting this important operation.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 5.