‘One Life’ Review: One Man’s Rescue of Children in Wartime

‘One Life’ Review: One Man’s Rescue of Children in Wartime

When Nicholas Winton died in 2015 at 106, his obituary in The New York Times noted that, for decades, he had been startlingly reserved about what he achieved at the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Between the Munich Agreement in 1938 and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Winton organized a rapidly moving operation that saved 669 children, most of them Jewish, by transporting them from Prague to Britain, where they were placed with foster families.

The rescue didn’t receive wide public attention for 50 years, partly because, as the biographical feature “One Life” depicts, Winton (played by Johnny Flynn as a young man and Anthony Hopkins in scenes set later) was reluctant to acknowledge his heroism. In trying to capture this almost stoic modesty, the film, directed by James Hawes, falls into a dramaturgical trap.

“One Life” is really two movies. It looks back on the wartime actions from 1987, when Winton considers what to do about a scrapbook of photos and documents he has kept. Flashbacks to the 1930s open a window on his plan to locate Jewish children in Prague, secure visas for each of them and find them temporary families in Britain. Time, financing and bureaucracy loomed as stubborn obstacles.

The procedural complexities, and Winton’s efforts to gain the trust of the children’s parents, are compelling enough. They throw down a moral gauntlet to viewers, who must put themselves in his shoes. The motives of Winton, a British stockbroker and socialist with German-Jewish roots, are portrayed as pure altruism.

By contrast, the 1980s thread — which builds to Winton’s appearances on the BBC program “That’s Life!” in 1988 — might have played discretely as a portrait of mental compartmentalization. But intercut with the weightier wartime scenes, this strand comes across as slight and, unlike Winton, self-congratulatory.

One Life
Rated PG. Running time 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters.

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