One Life

At age 86, Anthony Hopkins is doing some of the best work of his long, already distinguished career. He follows up his Oscar-winning role in The Father and his impressive turns in Freud’s Last Session and The Son with yet another first-rate performance in One Life. He’s only in half the film, but even when another actor is playing the younger version of his character, the presence of the veteran performer looms over everything.

Based on a true story, the movie opens with elderly Nicky Winton being advised by his loving wife to clean out his cluttered home office. Taking on that task causes him to discover an old briefcase shoved in a drawer. Inside is a scrapbook filled with memories of his early days. Flashbacks show us what he’s remembering. The younger Nicky (The Outfit’s Johnny Flynn) takes a leave of absence from his job as a London broker to help organize the transport of Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia before the Nazis fully invade and close the border.

One Life tells parallel, connected stories. Watching how Nicky organizes a team, dodges the Nazis, and lines up British foster parents is certainly compelling. But more compelling is the other storyline, which finds the elder Nicky struggling with his legacy. Aside from trying to decide what to do with his scrapbook, he contemplates the merits of his actions. Did he do enough? Was there something he could have done but didn’t? Hopkins brings that idea across powerfully, especially as a popular TV show looks to spotlight Nicky’s accomplishments. He makes you feel the weight this man puts on himself.

A minor issue is that the film glosses over the subject to a slight degree, assuming we all know how terrible the Nazis were. We do, of course, yet showing one or two incidents of their menace would have given the story a bigger punch. The threat is generally off-camera. Letting us see specifically why the children are in danger could help to convey the urgency of Nicky’s mission. It doesn’t need to be graphic or violent, just slightly more present than it is.

This does not mean that One Life is without impact. An inspiring message is interwoven throughout, namely that compassionate individuals can make a difference, even in the face of pure evil. Director James Hawes effectively paces the story to emphasize the race against the clock Nicky and his collaborators face. Witnessing them guide each train car full of kids to safety is satisfying because we know they’ve managed to foil the Nazis. That emotional quality is sufficient to keep you hooked from beginning to end.

Ditto for the excellent work from Anthony Hopkins. His performance is filled with empathy and warmth, as well as with unexpected layers. The actor smartly doesn’t play Nicky as a hero; he plays him as a man who saw something bad happening and chose to do the right thing by helping. He is driven by innate morality – the kind of morality that the Nazis significantly lack. One Life gives Hopkins a multi-dimensional character to portray. Unsurprisingly, he knocks it out of the park.


out of four

One Life is rated PG for thematic material, smoking, and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Universal

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan