Wednesday, March 13, 2024

One Life: Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir Nicholas Winton

Sir Nicholas Winton has been called the British Schindler, but his heroic rescue work went almost completely unrecognized until 1988. Of course, hardly anyone knew who Oskar Schindler was before the 1993 film. To this day, few people have heard of Varian Fry and the noble Raoul Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison, most likely sometime in the late 1950s. The modest Winton never sought fame, so he is surprised when it belatedly finds him in James Hawes’s One Life, which opens Friday in theaters.

When the National Socialists invaded the Sudetenland, most of the UK government buried their heads in the sand, but a young stockbroker of Jewish German heritage sprang into action. Hinton arrived in Prague as a representative of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, who believed his expertise in finance and bureaucratic paperwork could come in handy. The local chair Doreen Warriner was focusing on the most at-risk political refugees, because she barely had the bandwidth to handle them.

However, Winton is so struck by the appalling conditions endured by the largely but not exclusively Jewish children in makeshift camps, he launches an ambitious campaign that becomes known as the Kindertransport. British immigration authorities are not quite as obstructionist as the notoriously antisemitic Breckinridge Long in the U.S. State Department, but they require a fifty-pound deposit to insure the children would not burden the state, in addition to visas and pre-arranged foster parents to care for them. Back in England, Winton starts plugging away, with the help of his committee colleagues and his mother Babi, who was hard to say no to.

It is pretty mind-blowing Winton and his colleagues conducted this major fundraising campaign and logistical challenge using type-writers and regular mail service. However, the anti-Jewish hatred they encountered is depressingly commonplace in 2024. What would Winton think about his Labour Party’s persistent scandals involving antisemitism?

Screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake go out of their way to point out Winton’s left-leaning politics. Yet, the film takes on a new sense of urgency post 10/7. (In a twist of fate, its UK debut came less than a week after Hamas's savage mass murders, abductions, and weaponized rapes.)

Whether or not you can push outside events out of your mind, Sir Anthony Hopkins is still a marvel as the late-1980s Winton. He portrays the righteous rescuer with deep sincerity and humility that is very moving. You might not pick Hopkins and Johnny Flynn out of a crowd and assume they were related, but he plays 1930s Winton with similarly keen earnestness. We quickly believe they are the same man, seen decades apart.

Helena Bonham Carter also greatly elevates Hawes’ largely conventional execution with her memorable supporting turn as Babi Winton. She still has some of her usual flair for flamboyance, but she keeps her performance realistically grounded. She and Flynn present a healthy and frank mother-grown son relationship that should not feel so weird to see on-screen, yet it is.

Winton’s efforts on behalf of the Kindertransport is an important story and Hopkins has the gravity to do it justice. Winton was previously the subject of Menemsha Film’s documentary
Nicky’s Family and the Kindertransport was the subject of the Oscar-winning doc Into the Arms of Strangers, so his story has been told before, but Hopkins, Flynn, and Carter give it greater human dimensions than you can get from talking heads and newsreel footage. Highly recommended, One Life opens Friday (3/15) in New York, including the AMC Lincoln Square.