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Human Interest

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One Life (2024)

In telling the true story of a British stockbroker who facilitated escapes for 669 Jewish children on the eve of World War II, “One Life” bounces between two disparate timelines unconnected until the end, if that. In 1938, Nicholas Winton, here played by obscure South African actor Johnny Flynn, arrives in Prague at the behest of Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) to assist Martin Blake (Ziggy Heath) of the British Committee for Refugees From Czechoslovakia in ironing out the logistics of evacuating refugees in advance of the German blitzkrieg. In 1987, Winton, now played by two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, has to reckon with the diminished stakes of clearing out his study of paperwork hoarded for nearly five decades.

Winton’s role in the wartime storyline is mostly that of a glorified apparatchik. At the outset, the British House of Commons has already provisionally approved entry for Jewish refugees under 17. Having only spent one month in Prague, Winton makes his contributions mostly away from the frontlines by lining up requisite sponsorships and chasing down immigration adjudicators in London – which, while immensely noble, is not to be conflated with sacrifices made by the likes of Blake and Warriner.

The latter storyline builds toward Winton’s guest appearance on “That’s Life!” on BBC1, which describes it as a “consumer rights” TV program. Here, it’s presented as some sort of British “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” To Winton’s surprise, he’s seated in the audience surrounded by refugees whom he had a hand in saving decades prior. A teary reunion ensues. Perhaps “Past Lives” would have been a more apt title.

Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake commit a cardinal sin in screenwriting with protracted flashbacks (or flash-forwards, who really knows) that distract from the competing narrative. On the one hand, you have a literal life-and-death situation reenacted by less effective performers; on the other, you have Sir Hopkins acting circles around them and lending considerable gravitas to what amounts to a trivial epilogue that’s inexplicably posited as the film’s climax.

It’s well-established that Sir Hopkins can probably act in his sleep. When Winton is chauffeured to the BBC, the “War and Peace” star acts like someone who’s never set foot at the broadcaster his entire life – an outlandish suggestion for Sir Hopkins which he renders utterly believable. He receives top billing in “One Life,” yet his timeline lacks substance. The culminating reunion is expectedly poignant, but the dog-and-pony-show setting cheapens the proceedings.

The Holocaust functions as a subplot here. Simply put, there are films that illustrate its atrocities and devastations way more compellingly than this. It only registers as distant memory here in the juxtaposing of the 1938 and the 1987 timelines. Worse, historical documentations Winton has preserved for decades are somehow treated as an inconvenience and a source of domestic discord at one point – though disproven in due course, it’s still outrageous to even insinuate it merely for the sake of dramatic tension.

Stepping back, “One Life” is ultimately built around the heartrending ambush staged by “That’s Life!” What passes for good television doesn’t necessarily pass for good cinema. Sir Hopkins does the heavy lifting to ensure an emotional payoff for the climax, but James Hawes, a TV veteran making his feature directorial debut, simply doesn’t have the dexterity to make “That’s Life!” seem less exploitative and trashy of a TV show. Perhaps with this human-interest segment “That’s Life!” punched above its weight, but within the context of “One Life” it trivializes a rather weighty subject matter.


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