'One Life' Is a Moving, Well-Crafted Biopic about a Holocaust Hero – Kveller
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‘One Life’ Is a Moving, Well-Crafted Biopic about a Holocaust Hero

The movie starring Anthony Hopkins is a beautiful tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 children in the Kindertransport.

ONE LIFE Still 5 Courtesy Bleecker Street1200

via Bleecker Street

I knew just how “One Life” was going to end, and yet I found myself weeping anyway.

For filmmaker James Walsh, it was obvious, too — he had been given the perfect ending for the movie by history itself. The new movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn is about Nicholas Winton, the British man dubbed Righteous Amongst Nations by Yad Vashem for rescuing 669 mostly Jewish children at risk for persecution in the Holocaust through what was called the Kindertransport. But the ending is inspired by an unforgettable clip from the late ’80s show “That’s Life!” in which Winton, who long kept his work during the Holocaust secret, is surprised to find that he is sitting in a TV studio full of the children and grandchildren of those he saved.

“It just grabbed me very hard,” Walsh says about Winton’s story and particularly that clip, which was both incredibly moving and a boon for him as a director. “You’ve got somewhere to direct your leading actor towards, which is not always the case and hugely satisfying.”

“One Life,” directed by Walsh, written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, and based on the book by Barbara Winton, is just that — a very satisfying biopic. Those who find themselves easily shedding tears at the theater will probably do just that while watching the movie. Yet that cry is a good cry; the emotion behind it, Walsh observes in an interview with Kveller, “is uplifting and not depressing. You will leave the theater feeling moved for all the right reasons.”

Winton is the perfect hero: a British stockbroker who made it to Prague in the midst of the war, and who did his best to save the children of Jewish refugees sheltering there. Winton had what many love about a good hero – a true sense of humility. His story became a matter of public interest by total happenstance, thanks to his old documents about the children reaching the right hands many decades after his heroic acts. He was a man haunted by the children he couldn’t save — over 200 children meant to go on a train in September of 1939, just as the Nazis invaded Prague. He was, what Jews like to call, a mensch, and Hopkins, who plays him as a sweetly innocent, humble and kind older man, and Flynn, who brings us a tenacious and brazen young Winton, bring forth that menschiness.

Yet aside from a kind of humanism that informs Winton’s actions, there’s also his own German-Jewish heritage. Winton’s parents and grandparents were German Jews who immigrated to Britain, changing their last name from Wertheim to Winton and converting to Christianity. They celebrated Christmas. And yet, Walsh says, it was probably his family’s history that made him more empathetic to what could happen to the Jews in Prague.

“They had their history of having fled Germany, a generation previously, that attuned him to the coming threats,” Walsh says. “So when he went to Prague, he read the landscape differently. He understood even more than the British government did what was likely coming.”

In one moment in the film, Winton’s Jewish heritage comes to the fore, as he tries to obtain the names of the Jewish children he wants to save from Rabbi Hertz, played by Samuel Fintzi. The rabbi asks him if he’s Jewish, wondering why an uninvolved man from Britain would want to do what he does.

“My grandparents on both sides were Jewish, but I was baptized in the Church of England,” he tells the rabbi.

“I would call you a Jew,” the rabbi responds, a moment that echoes what we know about the Nazi regime, how they might have considered him Jewish, too, and that in another world, it could have been Winton’s family needing the rescuing, not doing it.

While not all the children Winton rescued were Jewish, the vast majority of them were, though many of them were placed into caring homes that were mostly non-Jewish. Despite that discomfort, Winton makes his motivation clear, as he does when talking to his mother, Babbette “Babi” Winton. He may be able to do something — and so he must. It is a principal that feels inherently Jewish.

The rabbi worries about the children being placed in non-Jewish homes, and yet in the end, he places his trust, and the names of the children, in Winton’s hand and urges him with a Hebrew saying, “Don’t start what you can’t finish.”

Throughout the movie, Winton does exactly that. But not alone. The movie makes it very clear that Winton would not have been able to do what he did without the women he worked with.

There’s activist Doreen Warbinger, played by Romola Garai, and the fabulous, well-dressed and German-accented Babi, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, who doesn’t just use her brand of chutzpah to help Winton with his work with the British foreign ministry, but is also there to comfort her son when his idealism runs into the terrible reality that he will simply not be able to save everyone.

The movie’s approach to authentic casting is perhaps a somewhat inadvertent but fascinating one. “We wanted to respect the ethnicity of everybody there,” Walsh says, explaining that most of the kids that we see in the movie are Jewish, like the children saved by Winton, and the host of ‘That’s Life!” Esther Rantzen is played by fellow British Jew Samantha Spiro. Yet both Garai and Bonham-Carter have family histories that touch on the movie. Garai does not consider herself Jewish, and did not grow up in a Jewish environment, but her father was a Hungarian Jew, and much of his family died during the Holocaust, a loss that felt palpable when she was growing up. And Bonham-Carter’s grandfather, Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejon, who himself had Jewish heritage, saved thousands Jews during the Holocaust and like Winton was named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem.

The movie’s title comes from an oft-paraphrased line from the Talmud — “save one life, save the world” — and Walsh and his team made sure to fully visualize just that, with not just the scene from the show, but the later precious moments in which Winton got to actually connect with the people that he saved.

“In a world all too full of refugees and crises with refugees, it felt like this was something that could speak to that problem, that could speak to the challenges and to the heartache of individuals very powerfully without needing to be preachy. Because it’s a story of triumph,” Walsh says.

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