Speaking of forced emotion, the tears will flow for anyone who sees James Hawes’ “One Life,” but that’s truly only because of the inherent power of the true story being told here. It’s the classic Roger quote: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” What “One Life” is about is powerful, but this is not a powerfully made film. One could get the same emotional kick from watching the talk show clip that inspired this production. To be fair, Sir Anthony Hopkins does no wrong here, of course, and makes several smart decisions in terms of grounding his character, but he’s only in roughly half the film, and the rest is about as standardly made as a Wikipedia entry.
Hopkins plays the elderly Nicholas Winton, who is introduced in the ‘80s as he’s going through his belongings to reduce some of the clutter around the home he shares with his wife (Lena Olin). Going through old photographs, he finds shots of the children he saved in 1938, leading to extensive flashbacks in which Winton is played by Johnny Flynn. In that year, an ordinary stockbroker became a hero when he coordinated the transport of hundreds of children to safety as the war began. “One Life” becomes a half-memory piece as the older Winton comes to terms with what he did in his youth and a war movie as the younger Winton races to save more lives.
Clearly, the message that history could have used more men as brave as Nicholas Winton is an undeniable one, but a film is more than its subject matter, and “One Life” is delivered in such a bland, straightforward manner that even its heightened story doesn’t feel like it has real stakes. Helena Bonham Carter does what she can to add some truth to the flashbacks as Winton’s mother, but it all feels too much like a costume piece with no real dirt under its nails or danger around the corner. It lacks the urgency that must have surely pulsed through every day that these people chose to save lives. They’re legitimate heroes who deserve all the attention in the world. They also deserve a better movie.