One Life

  • 20 Apr - 26 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

You’ve probably seen the viral video. An elderly British man named Nicholas Winton sits in the front row of a television studio watching a silly chat show called, That’s Life. The host explains to the viewers that more than 40 years earlier, just before World War II, as the Nazis were invading Czechoslovakia, Winton arranged for the rescue of hundreds of children from Prague. The story had never been publicly told and none of the children knew who had arranged their transportation and found them foster homes in the UK. The host then revealed that the woman sitting next to Winton was one of those children. And in a second That’s Life broadcast, where Winton expected to meet two more of the now-grown children, it turned out that every member of the studio audience was one of those he had rescued.

That extraordinary story is now the subject of a less-than-extraordinary film that is nevertheless heartwarming, its theme of the difference a single person can make reflected in the title, One Life. Winton is played in the 1980s by Anthony Hopkins and in the flashbacks to the late 1930s by Johnny Flynn.

Winton was born two years after his German parents immigrated to the UK in 1907. At that time their name was Wertheim, Anglicised to Winton as the prospect of a second world war made the family want to be seen as fully British as they felt. They had converted from Judaism and Winton was baptised, though, as he explains to a Czech rabbi suspicious of his reasons for requesting the names of the displaced children, he considers himself an agnostic and, surprisingly for someone working as a stockbroker, a socialist.

“Everyone in Prague is trying to get out,” Winton’s mother (Helena Bonham Carter) says dryly. “My son is trying to get in.” Germany had “annexed” the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia and only the European politicians thought he was going to stop there. Refugees were living in the direst conditions in Prague. The Kindertransport trains rescuing refugee children were only allowed from Germany and Austria, not Czechoslovakia.

A few exhausted British citizens in Prague were trying to help, but their priority was activists who would be the first to be arrested if the Nazis arrived. Winton’s priority was the children. There were thousands of children and innumerable obstacles. Locals and refugees were not willing to share their information for fear the Nazis would get them, by force or betrayal. There was a lot of bureaucratic red tape in the UK and the countries the children would have to go through and the need for £50 (about $10,000 today) and a willing foster home for each of them before they would be allowed into the country. And there was no time. With the help of his very persuasive mother, some friends in the UK and Prague, and endless hours of pasting the children’s photos on the visas, they were able to bring eight trains filled with more than 600 children to England. The ninth train, scheduled to leave the day the war was declared, was stopped by the Nazis.

As the older Winton tries, at his wife’s urging, to go through the towering piles of paper in his home office, he thinks back on his life. He is overcome with the thoughts of the children he could not save. He shyly brings his scrapbook of the rescue operation to the local newspaper, but the editor says there is no local angle. And then he brings it to Betsy Maxwell (Marthe Keller), the French wife of media mogul, financier, Czech refugee, and perpetrator of a massive fraud Robert Maxwell (they were also the parents of Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell, but that would be another movie). Finally there is someone who recognises its importance.

The flashback scenes are not as compelling as they try to be. The Hopkins scenes are more engaging, not just because we look forward to the re-enactment of the television reveal, but because the film is sharper at addressing the existential issues of purpose and meaning than it is in showing us the difficulties in rescuing the children. When Winton sees the children he saved, grown up and apparently flourishing, it helps him make sense of his life and tells us everything we need.