Like OBEs, middlebrow British prestige biopics symbolize a desire to raise national morale by bestowing laurels upon an extraordinary individual. These subjects require no special case-making, for their efforts speak for themselves. The result tends to be patronizingly risk-averse, as story dots are joined with the goal of spoon-feeding a historic achievement to the masses. An inspirational message becomes a claim to contemporary relevance while a popular actor leads the charge towards awards recognition.
What sets Anthony Hopkins as Sir Nicholas Winton aside from Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and Eddie Redmayne as Steven Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” is that while these two men are known for their scientific inventions, Winton acted from an instinctive desire to do something humane.
James Hawes, a British TV director whose most notable credits are two episodes of “Black Mirror” (“Hated in the Nation” and Smithereens”) moves cautiously into the film-o-sphere with a kid-gloves handling of the story of Sir Nicholas Winton. His film intercuts between two timelines: in 1938, Winton, a mild-mannered stockbroker played by Johnny Flynn, feels the acute peril on a visit to Prague and forms the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC) to evacuate Jewish children to London, saving 669 lives; in 1987, Maidenhead, Anthony Hopkins plays a sharp-humored yet preoccupied man who has never forgiven himself for the children he did not have time to bring across. This timeline builds up to a moment in media history, restaging an overwhelming episode of “That’s Life!,” a daytime BBC TV consumer affairs show, in which the previously anonymous Winton became a national hero in the course of minutes.
The BCRC is formed out of an emergency aid organization run by Doreen (Romola Garai), Trevor (Alex Sharp), and Marta (Antonie Formanová) whose harried presence at the refugee camps predates the arrival of Johnny (Flynn)-come-lately. He persuades them, via a spirited speech, to up their game from on-the-ground support to finding adoptive homes in the UK for the most vulnerable children. Spirited speeches prove an ongoing currency as stony officials instantly melt into warm-hearted collaborators, with the fluidity of gatekeepers taking a bribe. As Nicholas’ mother, Babette, a German-accented Helena Bonham-Carter Helena Bonham-Carters her way though many of these such officials, usually wearing fur.
The undeniably moving nature of Winton and his associates’ deeds swell the narrative with rich emotional currents, however the film’s bid for consistent quality is kneecapped by a ridiculously on-the-nose script. Unobtrusively accurate period detail, rendered by production designer Christina Moore, becomes a backdrop for silly back-and-forths. A key scene for the brand new BBRC takes place in a bar where pleasingly drab costumes only means that dialogue pops like a cartoon animal’s speech bubble.
The subject of conversation is whether the British people will respond to a newspaper advert looking for adoptive parents for the refugee children. “You have a lot of faith in ordinary people,” someone says to Nicholas. ”I do, because I am an ordinary person,” he counters. Soon they are toasting to “an army of ordinary people” and the film’s outlook is announced with all the subtlety of a blow to the head.
Hawes exerts damage control on the script, but also clashes with it, via a visual language that trades in realism, bearing out his public statements about taking inspiration from contemporary images of Ukrainian refugees. “One Life” flirts with transcending its shortcomings in its stark depiction of parents saying goodbye to their tiny, wide-eyed children — big gloved hands slowly letting go of smaller hands, before the small-hand owners shuffle onto a steam train, identifiable by numbers written on cardboard and hung about their necks with string. These partings happen in batches across the 1938 section, always mercifully dialogue-free, and so the dramatic irony (we know that this is a permanent goodbye) wrenches anew.
The push-and-pull between what is lissom and enjoyable and what is clumsy and jarring extends to the edits between timelines, as Hawes chooses cliched images (reflective surfaces, diving into a pool) to cut between Johnny Flynn and Anthony Hopkins. This does a disservice to the performances which achieve great coherence. Both men have clearly studied the real Winton. While Flynn is not given the chance to deliver emotional pay-offs, he sets up the character’s diffident persona and quiet convictions, proving that he has the versatility to play a repressed, still-water-run-deep gentleman, as well as his stock-in-trade: sexy dirtbags and tortured artists (“Beast” and “Stardust”).
At this point in a sensational career, it is to be expected that Hopkins will sink his teeth into any part. Somehow, presumably through witchcraft, he sails over expectations, and the way that he does this (on top of the witchcraft) is by taking a pause to reset a scene in order that he can take it from the top with smaller inflections and movements. He neutralizes the overbaked dialogue with a deadpan delivery, before proceeding to act with every other tool in his arsenal. When the script is not your friend, silence is, and the most moving and memorable moments arrive when Hopkins simply sits with a loaded piece of information. His response to the blunt and needless point that the children he could not save would almost definitely have been murdered in concentration camps is, eventually, “Bloody Hitler!” — humor shoehorned in to diffuse the pain.
The “That’s Life!” scene when it arrives is too, too much. The film has no curiosity over, or desire to interrogate, the ethical implications of emotionally ambushing a private man in such a public setting. Instead, it restages what went down, verbatim, as a handy climax which offers a moment of transformation and a personal outlet for Winton, handled with typical small beauty by Hopkins. Much as a hungry child will salivate on seeing a chocolate bar, so the circumstances depicted yank at the heart strings with something approaching brutality. The film’s faith in ordinary people extends to a belief that we will adopt child refugees, but a belief that we can interpret art is a bridge too far.
“One Life” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.