One Life (2023, dir. James Hawes) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 26, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 109 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 5 January 2024

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN ONE LIFE?

Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Alex Sharp, Jonathan Pryce, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Spiro, Ziggy Heath

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

James Hawes (director), Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake (writers), Iain Canning, Guy Heeley, Joanna Laurie and Emile Sherman (producers), Volker Bertelmann (composer), Zac Nicholson (cinematographer), Lucia Zucchetti (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Nicholas Winton (Hopkins), who saved numerous children during the war, receives an unexpected surprise…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ONE LIFE?

At some point during a few of your doom-scrolls on YouTube and Facebook – don’t deny it, we’ve all done that at least once in our lives – it’s likely that you’ve come across a few videos with clickbait titles like “This is the most moving thing ever” or “Watch this beautiful moment of live television”, all depicting the same event. On a 1988 episode of consumer affairs programme That’s Life!, an elderly audience member by the name of Nicholas Winton was revealed to have been a key figure in early-war heroics that resulted in the relocation of hundreds of vulnerable children in Central Europe, leading to a few further on-air surprises that more than earn those clickbait-y titles.

Winton’s incredible story is finally relayed in movie form with One Life, a moving and handsomely told biopic that will easily win over audiences, even when it doesn’t always escape its conventional trappings.

The film goes back and forth between two different parts of Winton’s life: first when, as a young man in 1930s Britain, Winton (Johnny Flynn) dedicates himself to arranging the safe passage of young Jewish children from Czechoslovakia following the Nazi’s annexation of the Sudetenland; and second decades later when Winton (Anthony Hopkins) goes through his old records during a tidy of his study, and decides to find somewhere that they can be best put to use, which eventually leads to that fateful television episode of That’s Life! where he receives the most pleasant of surprises.

The feature debut of director James Hawes, who had previously been behind episodes of Black Mirror, Doctor Who and Slow Horses among other television work, One Life certainly follows a familiar pattern when it comes to this kind of biopic. You get a lot of standard scenes where the central figure goes from one showstopping monologue straight into another (whether it’s in a different timeline or not), with many of Winton’s wartime heroics somewhat watered down to make the film’s narrative flow a bit smoother, and certain supporting characters – namely Helena Bonham Carter as Winton’s German-born mother, who assists her son on his noble mission – providing light comic relief every now and then to offset the heavier emotional moments. The script, credited to Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, goes through many of the expected motions also found within similar biopics about historical figures, and sticks safely to that pattern without much deviation, which in a way does make it feel less profound than a story like this truly deserves.

However, when it does manage to overcome some of its familiarity, One Life works rather well to show how much this singular event clearly meant to this person, and how despite the good it did for so many people he never really took credit for his actions until he was unearthed on live television. The strand featuring Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton is the stronger of the two, not just because Hopkins delivers a truly sublime performance – though Johnny Flynn does very good work here as well – but also because you really do feel this weight of guilt and uncertainty overshadowing him as he reminisces back to his defining moments. Both the script and Hawes’ direction manage to focus tightly on his inner struggle without wholly lionising him, which it is much more on the verge of doing during the Flynn-led strand.

It goes without saying that the best moments in the film are during the taping of those legendary That’s Life! episodes which, if you’ve seen those online videos, you’ll already know how emotional they ended up being for everyone involved, but in these re-enactments, they really do leave you in a way where you’re undoubtedly choked up whilst watching them play out. The direction, writing, editing, musical score, and certainly the acting all harmoniously work to deliver the right mood for these powerful scenes, and they land rather beautifully without overdoing the melodrama, and giving this main figure the kind of treatment that his heroic actions absolutely call for.

If the script had taken a few more chances with the real-life story it’s been tasked with telling, One Life could easily have been one of those films that would be fondly remembered as one of the great British war dramas. As is, it’s pleasant viewing with moments of brilliance, but its conventional trappings are a tricky pit to crawl out of, rendering it perfectly watchable but far from fresh and sadly not quite as profound as the real-life exploits of Nicholas Winton, as previously seen in those clickbait videos, should be portrayed.

SO, TO SUM UP…

One Life is a handsomely told and well-acted account of the wartime heroics of Nicholas Winton, and his televised surprises later in life which are effectively recreated, though the script sticks too closely to safe biopic conventions for it to land quite as well as it ought to.

Three out of five stars

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