Nicholas Winton is not, like Schindler, a name on everyone’s lips, and Anthony Hopkins plays him as an older man who thinks, but isn’t sure, that he might have an interesting story to tell. In the late 1980s he contacts a British paper and they fob him off, saying the 50th centenary of the war might be coming up but no one wants to read about refugees.
The fact that this story is fundamentally true rescues from mediocrity a stock-in-trade drama about heroism which opens the British Film Festival.
The necessary ingredients are all in place: a humanitarian desire to help, an intransigent bureaucracy, and a race against time as the shadow of Hitler falls over Europe. In an act of appeasement, the dictator has been allowed to take the Czech region of Sudetenland in the hope he will go away, not unlike Putin was allowed to annexe Crimea.
Young Nicholas Winton (Johnny Flynn), a visiting London stockbroker, offers to assist a band of English men and women in Prague helping displaced children. He takes it on himself to set up a pipeline to the UK, where Czech children will be fostered with English families, to return home after the war. The list of bureaucratic demands at the London end is daunting and includes 50 pounds per child. Publicity helps, as does Winton’s mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter), one of those indomitable British characters whose rousing pep talk to a London civil servant rather improbably makes him see the light.
One Life has clunky moments and heavy-handed sentimental touches – including a battered leather briefcase and a young girl with a baby lost in the system. Meanwhile, Winton’s wife in the 1980s, played in an odd piece of casting by Swedish actor Lena Olin, flits about telling him to tidy up.
But what did it all mean? We move between time periods more than half a century apart as the older Winton struggles to find a home for his files and his connection to the project that defined his life. There is a moving twist, whose original footage viewers may have already seen, and Hopkins is simply wonderful as an undemonstrative Englishman unsure of his place in the world.
It is troubling to be confronted right now with a film dealing with the horrors of Nazism in Europe which cost the lives of millions of Jews. For the same reason, it is worth being reminded that ordinary people can be extraordinarily generous when nothing is asked of them.
The British Film Festival opened this week and runs until November 29. See session times here.
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