One Life (released January 2024) tells the story of British stockbroker come humanitarian Nicholas Winton, who brought hundreds of children from Central Europe to safety in the UK on the eve of the second world war.
The film divides its focus between the actions of the young Winton (played by Johnny Flynn), taking time off from his city job to dash to Prague on a humanitarian mission in 1939, and the consequences of those actions for the older, retired stockbroker (Anthony Hopkins).
Winton went to Prague to assist a colleague in humanitarian work in 1939. He was shocked by what he found. There were thousands of displaced people, the vast majority of them Jews from the Sudetenland, and Winton was particularly worried for the children. There was talk of camps but nobody at that point in history had a clear idea of what exactly awaited the refugees. However, there was no doubt as to the danger they faced.
He recruited his formidable mother, Babette (Helena Bonham Carter) in an against-the-clock enterprise to get as many children as possible to foster families in Britain. Working with colleagues, he compiled lists of the refugee children, raised funding for travel visas and accompanied them from Prague to London.
If It’s Not Impossible, The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton
The film is based on the book If It’s Not Impossible, The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton written by his daughter, Barbara, and was made in close collaboration with the family, including Winton himself – especially concerning the humble nature of the protagonist. Winton did not consider himself a hero, and did not want to be portrayed as one, rather as an ordinary man doing what ordinary people should do.
The life of the latter-day Winton is set in the 1980s and cinematographer Zac Nicholson shoots the scenes in deliberately restrained grey tones to frame the everyday nature of Winton’s life and his self-perceived ordinariness. This section was shot in advance of the 1939 scenes to allow Flynn time to observe Hopkins’ interpretation of the character and to facilitate consistency of style in the performances.
Even at this time in his life, Winton was still immersed in an incessant drive to help others. He was the president of his local branch of the charity, Mencap, and of the Abbeyfield Maidenhead Society. He had already been awarded an MBE in 1983 for his work in establishing Abbeyfield Homes for the elderly.
Until the late 1980s the story of his role in the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport was relatively unknown. Winton rarely spoke of it as he didn’t consider that he had done anything extraordinary. It was only when he was trying to donate his papers to an archive that the impressive role he had played in such a significant rescue effort came to light.
The story of his earlier life of dashes to Prague, the forging of documents, people’s lives in his hands and close shaves with the Gestapo lay hidden in the faded pages of his wartime scrapbook. It told the story of the 669 children he saved, catalogued in old photographs and original documents. The scrapbook also served as a constant reminder of the lives he did not succeed in saving. The faces of those lost children haunted him.
Hopkins is perfect in the role of Winton, gentle and unassuming. We see him arriving at the That’s Life! recording studios, totally unsuspecting, to find himself surrounded by the children he rescued, now middle-aged adults. It is a piece of extraordinary television and has been viewed on YouTube over 40 million times.
Director James Hawes deliberately attempts to avoid overly emotional scenes, the story is told in a simple, understated and rather conventional style, yet despite itself, it is inevitably very moving.
History repeating itself
The film is about the difference one life can make; the urgency of the plight of Central European Jews in 1939 serves as the exemplar rather than the main story. Viewers hoping for an English Schindler’s List will be disappointed.
One Life reflects the current conversation around the acceptance of refugees. Winton’s mother, pleading with the Home Office to issue visas, is confronted with the response that charity begins at home.
The film shows how the government had to be convinced to allow entry to the unaccompanied children, and they did not make it easy. Despite being displaced and sometimes orphaned, each child had complex criteria to reach and had to be able to show they had £50 (around £4,000 today) deposited for their potential return to their homeland, or for onward travel. Winton took it upon himself to organise a media campaign in the UK to influence public opinion, and to get the government’s conditions met for as many children as he could.
Nicholas Winton did not want us to leave tasks such as those he undertook to heroes, because in doing so we relieve ourselves of the burden. The film squarely puts the onus on us ordinary people to take up that challenge.
To say that we have ample opportunity to do so is an understatement.
Humans in desperate need of help
In Prague, Winton didn’t see an ethnic or religious group; he saw humans in desperate need of help. In one scene, the young Winton is asked if he is Jewish himself. Despite his Jewish heritage, he is not drawn. He replies that he considers himself a European and a socialist.
There will always be catastrophe, war, persecution and refugees. There will always be governments trying to restrict their movement. Let’s hope there will always be an incarnation of Nicholas Winton to ensure that some do succeed. Of the 900 children he registered, 669 were rescued in just nine months. As a result, 6,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise have existed.
One life, like its subject, is succinct, meticulous and restrained. The temptation to add pathos and high emotions was rightly resisted and leaves the viewer room to consider Winton’s actions without any clutter.
Amid the immediate chaos of post Brexit politics, the British government introduced the Immigration Act 2016 designed to introduce new sanctions against ‘illegal’ migrants.
A Labour Peer, Lord Alfred Dubs, introduced an amendment to the legislation, officially titled section 67, which became better known as the Dubs amendment. This amendment required the secretary of state to “make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”. Dubs hoped to be able to help 3,000 children, but the government, having voted against the amendment, limited the figure initially to 350, before finally agreeing to 480 places.
By 2020 all available places were filled and the scheme came to an end.
There is no other legal route providing the same protection for unaccompanied minors.
Among the papers bequeathed by Winton is a list of names of all the children he rescued. Number 86, serial number 1623, is Alfred Dubs.
One Life (in UK cinemas from 5 January 2024) is released by Warner Bros, directed by James Hawes, written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, starring Anthony Hopkins/Johnny Flynn as Nicholas Winton, Helena Bonham Carter as Babette, with Jonathan Pryce in a cameo role.
The film was viewed at an advance private screening with a Q&A session with the filmmakers.