Sir Anthony Hopkins carries this moving drama about one of the 20th century’s unsung heroes, says Dan Slevin.
The year of the octogenarian continues. With fresh new work from 80+ directors Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, Ken Loach, Michael Mann and Ridley Scott in cinemas during 2023, 2024 looks like the year for 80-year-old actors.
At the ripe old age of 86 – and with the accolades for his 2022 Oscar-winning performance in The Father still ringing in his ears – Sir Anthony Hopkins shows no sign of slowing down. Even in voiceover, he’s the only thing worth your time in Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon and he is offered something far worthier of his talents in One Life, the story of Nicholas Winton’s frantic attempts to rescue Jewish refugee children from occupied Prague just before World War II, and the eventual revelation of his role in it thanks to the BBC That’s Life programme in the 1980s.
The younger Winton – equally ably portrayed by Johnny Flynn – was a stockbroker and socialist in London in the 1930s with a leaning towards what we now call ‘human rights’ and a family background as a European emigré himself. Intending to go to Switzerland for a skiing holiday in 1938, he was persuaded instead to go to Prague to help the hundreds of people displaced by the Nazi occupation of the Czech Sudetenland, which had been allowed by Britain’s policy (at the time) of appeasement.
A quietly passionate and extremely well-organised young man, he took on the task of finding (seemingly impossible) visas, foster homes and rail tickets for the children who were in danger. Over the nine-month period before the rest of Czechoslovakia was invaded and war finally broke out across Europe, Winton and his colleagues brought over 600 children to Britain – with meticulous record keeping they hoped that one day those children would be reunited with their families.
The historical scenes are alternated with what I suppose are also historical scenes – the 1980s period where Winton is tidying up his life and attempting in his usual modest fashion to house the records of the kindertransport in a museum of some sort.
The balancing act between the tension of the Prague sequences and the quiet retirement in bucolic Maidenhead are what gives the film its power, I think. As the young Winton says, “ordinary people have to do this work because I have to do it and I am ordinary.” That ordinariness is what makes the achievement so heroic.
Filmmakers wanting to look at this period are very lucky that so much of Prague remains intact, to the extent that it can stand in for some of the UK locations, too.
Despite the strong work done by everyone else, the film belongs to Hopkins who can generate so much emotion by doing so little. When he dabs his eye in the TV studio during the programme that made him famous, I feel certain I wasn’t the only one in the cinema who was doing the same.
One Life is rated PG and is in select cinemas across New Zealand.