Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Joanna Laurie and Guy Heeley   Director: James Hawes   Screenplay:  Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake   Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Alex Sharp, Ziggy Heath, Samantha Spiro, Marthe Keller, Samuel Finzi and Jonathan Pryce   Distributor: Bleecker Street

Grade: B

It’s a story that’s been told repeatedly over the years with different protagonists—how one person acted courageously to save Jews from the Nazi Final Solution.  In “One Life” the focus is on Nicholas Winton, a man whom the press dubbed “The British Schindler” after his efforts, which resulted in rescuing 669 refugee children during the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, were revealed to the world in a 1988 television broadcast after having gone unrecognized for decades.    

Based on the 2014 book “If It’s Not Impossible: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton” by Winton’s daughter Barbara, James Hawes’s film, solidly made if not particularly imaginative, is bifurcated, moving back and forth between two timeframes.  Approximately one half of the narrative is set in the late 1980s, as Winton (Anthony Hopkins), prodded by his wife Grete (Lena Olin), begins clearing out his home office.  

Among the materials he intends to move are boxes of papers concerning his work in evacuating Czech refugees during the German occupation five decades earlier, and a scrapbook in which he’d carefully assembled photos and information about the children that had been rescued.  His aim is to find a suitable repository for the records where they won’t simply gather dust, but actually be studied and reflected upon.  He approaches journalists about the story they tell, but is rebuffed with disinterest.  And he consults old comrades in arms like Martin Blake (Jonathan Pryce), who’d in 1938 asked Winton to forego a planned ski trip and join him in Czechoslovakia instead, for suggestions.

Eventually Winton is able to take the scrapbook in person to Elizabeth Maxwell, wife of larger-than-life Czech-born media mogul Robert Maxwell, who himself had escaped his Nazi-occupied homeland, and she proves instrumental in getting it into the hands of Esther Ranzen (Samantha Spiro), host of the BBC program “That’s Life!”  It’s on that program that Winton’s story is broadcast and he’s reintroduced to many of those he’d helped to save, along with their families.

This portion of the film is complemented by extensive flashbacks showing the young Winton (Johnny Flynn) coming to Czechoslovakia in 1938 at the behest of Blake (Ziggy Heath) and becoming part of a network of workers, including Brits Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) as well as Czech volunteers, who are working to make contact with displaced families and assembling the names of children in need of transport out of the country, negotiating not just with parents but with individuals like a rabbi (Samuel Finzi) concerned that the information he provides could be misused. In the process Winton meets many of the children themselves, including one young girl caring for an infant from an unknown family. 

Using his organizational skills, Winton, with the help of his equally determined mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter), works to navigate the processes demanded by the British bureaucracy—securing visas and medical certificates for each child, as well as sponsors who will not only agree to take them in as foster parents but pay a fee to ensure they would not be a burden on the public dole–and that in addition to arranging for the trains that formed the Czech arm of the famous Kindertransport.  Wrenching scenes at the Prague railway station reach a shattering conclusion when the declaration of war in September, 1939, stops the process—and halts a last train filled with passengers as those still working with the program in Czechoslovakia must themselves flee as best they can.

The period settings in both halves of the film, shot in Czechoslovakia and England, are handily created by production designer Christina Moore, costumer Joanna Eatwell and cinematographer Zac Nicholson, and Lucia Zucchetti’s editing moves smoothly between one era and the other.  As comparison with the actual broadcasts demonstrate, special care was taken in recreating the BBC sequences, and Volker Bertelmann’s score complements the action without becoming overbearing.

Among the cast, Hopkins naturally stands out as the elder Winton, nicely expressing the man’s practical, matter-of-fact persona while showing his dedication to doing the right thing and his underlying regret over not having been able to do more; as his younger self, Flynn is a bit too stiff-upper-lip, but exudes integrity and compassion.  It’s also a tribute to the humility Winton always showed that his insistence that the program was a team effort is captured in the screenplay’s depiction of the work done by Blake, Warriner, Chadwick, Babi and many others, both British and Czech, who are portrayed with appropriate intensity by Garai, Sharp, Heath, and especially Carter; the latter’s stern interactions with foot-dragging British bureaucrats will make viewers smile.  One of the film’s historical strengths lies in depicting the reluctance of Britain to take in victims of Nazi oppression, a criticism that of course can be applied to other of the Western democracies as well.

The story told in “One Life” may be familiar, but it’s one that bears repeating, especially now.  Sober and straightforward, it delivers a touching but not maudlin combination of poignance and uplift.