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film review

One Life

Directed by James Hawes

Written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, from If It’s Not Impossible … The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton; by Barbara Winton

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Helena Bonham Carter

Classification PG; 109 minutes

Opens in theatres March 15

One Life is Schindler-lite, a maudlin and middling historical biopic about stockbroker and humanitarian Nicholas Winton’s heroic efforts, alongside Britain’s kindertransport missions, to save Jewish children from the Nazis. It’s yet another Holocaust movie, but one that seems self-aware of how familiar its narrative beats can be. The movie is even built with a justification for itself and for why these stories bear repeating.

In 1938, Winton left his bank job to help plan rescue efforts – mobilizing immigration departments, raising funds, securing fake visas and finding British foster homes for Jewish children from then-Czechoslovakia – prior to Hitler’s invasion. They successfully saved 669 lives. They were trying for many more.

One Life, based on a true story, frames that well-worn but compelling narrative as flashbacks in a saga that begins in 1987. A retired Winton, played during his later years by Anthony Hopkins, hears a radio broadcast reporting on the British government’s efforts not to rescue but deport Tamil refugees seeking asylum from Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Those headlines prompt Winton to dust off his scrapbook, full of names and photos of the Jewish children he meant to save, and finally publicize his own account from the Holocaust. According to the movie, he felt it an instructive reminder of the empathy needed to make a difference in these moments of crisis. This is also One Life’s way to nudge the audience, as if to say that Winton’s compassion is as necessary and relevant today as it was in the late-1980s, when his story finally caught the public’s eye.

I’m assuming One Life was made with Syrian or Ukrainian refugees on the mind. But seeing it now, I couldn’t help but connect its scenes of starved and imperilled children to the images coming out of Gaza. I know drawing parallels between the Holocaust and the Israel-Hamas war is a loaded and dangerous proposition. As of this writing, director Jonathan Glazer, who is Jewish, is being dragged online by the Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Israel voices for making the same connection during the Academy Awards, when his superior and unsettling Holocaust movie, The Zone of Interest, won the Best International Feature prize.

One Life is in no danger of being so controversial, nor so relevant. All that screen time it dedicates to depicting Winston’s victory lap in the 1980s, the stuff usually reserved for an epilogue, has the adverse effect of taking away from what makes his story matter: you know, the part where he saves the children.

We meet Winton (played in his early years by a fine Johnny Flynn) as he heads to Prague, ready to be of help and eager to be pointed in the right direction. He finds the children crowded in refugee camps, and immediately gets to the business of co-ordinating teams in Czechoslovakia and Britain – among them his mother played by an elegantly stern Helena Bonham Carter – to press the urgency on British officials and a public that would rather look away from the developing crisis.

Scenes where children are ripped from their families are emotionally gutting. They always are. One Life can count on that. But these passages are told in shorthand, as if relying on our familiarity with Holocaust movies and their tropes for the sake of storytelling economy. The movie skips past the very shading needed to distinguish itself. It always feels in a rush to get to those languid scenes with a reliably soulful Hopkins, whose starring role likely helped secure its financing.

Throughout it all, Winton remains a cypher. There’s no curiosity here about him or the people he dedicated his time to. There’s no emotional journey to help us understand him and the stubborn modesty that made him so reluctant to share his story.

Instead, One Life is invested in slowly setting up Winton’s brush with pop culture, when the British TV show That’s Life! outed his story. During that famous episode, Winton, who was sitting in the audience, was ambushed with a surprise reunion. He was among some of the children he saved.

It’s a schmaltzy scene, not relevant in the least. But that doesn’t stop One Life from repeating it.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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