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The Unforgettable Legacy Behind ‘One Life’

Humanitarian Nicholas Winton’s life-saving efforts during World War II have been celebrated in various films. From The Power of Good (2002) to Nicky’s Family (2011), numerous productions have honored his remarkable achievement of evacuating 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories. This heroic work earned Winton a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, yet he remained silent about his efforts for almost five decades.

James Hawes’ biopic One Life, set to release in the U.S. on March 15, is the latest cinematic tribute to Winton, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2015. Hawes explains his attraction to the story: “I’m totally drawn by a true story. It’s got this extraordinary character journey at the heart of it for this man who’s got grief and guilt.” Winton’s daughter, Barbara, specifically requested that Anthony Hopkins play her father in the film, a vision she didn’t live to see realized, but one that deeply moved Hopkins to join the project.

One Life

The Journey of ‘One Life’

One Life begins in 1987 with Hopkins portraying an elderly Winton, who is prompted by his wife Grete (Lena Olin) to declutter his office. During this process, Winton encounters an old scrapbook from the late 1930s, filled with documentation of his rescue efforts. The film then flashes back to a 29-year-old Winton, played by Johnny Flynn, who transitions from a London stockbroker to a full-time humanitarian in Prague, driven by the dire refugee crisis he couldn’t ignore.

As Winton’s journey unfolds, we see the immense effort and coordination involved in evacuating children from Prague to the UK. Assisted by his mother and a team of volunteers, Winton’s mission transforms from a week-long trip into a life-defining operation. Despite the success of evacuating eight trainloads of children, Winton is haunted by the ninth train, which never made it to safety due to the outbreak of war.

One Life

Characterizing Nicholas Winton

Hopkins, who was 84 during filming, found portraying Winton less challenging due to the strength of the script. “When you have a really good script you don’t have to do much, you just follow the map,” says Hopkins. With extensive experience in portraying complex characters, Hopkins focused on embodying Winton’s unique mannerisms and cadence, aided by extensive archival footage.

Director James Hawes aimed for consistency in depicting Winton at different life stages, noting that Johnny Flynn observed Hopkins to match certain gestures and nuances. Flynn’s portrayal of a younger Winton is marked by urgency and desperation, while Hopkins captures the older Winton’s deep sense of regret over the children he couldn’t save. This contrast highlights the emotional weight of Winton’s lifelong commitment to humanitarianism.

One Life

The Ninth Train and Its Legacy

In the late 1930s, the British government launched the Kindertransport, a rescue operation for unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany and Austria. Winton was instrumental in expanding this program to include children from Czechoslovakia, evacuating eight trainloads before the borders closed. The ninth train, which never departed due to the onset of war, symbolizes Winton’s enduring guilt and the lives lost to the Holocaust.

Hawes emphasizes Winton’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust victims, working to return stolen property and supporting refugee organizations long after the war. Winton’s efforts were largely unrecognized until a 1988 appearance on the BBC show That’s Life! where he was reunited with some of the children he saved. This emotional moment became a significant part of British TV history, highlighting the profound impact of Winton’s actions.

One Life

Present-Day Resonance

The story of Nicholas Winton continues to resonate, especially in the context of contemporary refugee crises. During a visit to the Czech Republic, Hawes and his team witnessed a poignant parallel as a train of Ukrainian refugees arrived, underscoring the timeless relevance of Winton’s humanitarian principles. Hawes hopes One Life will challenge audiences to see refugees as individuals with unique stories and highlight the importance of compassion and action.

One Life

Hawes’ ultimate message echoes Winton’s legacy: the inherent value of every child and the equality of humanity. By bringing Winton’s story to life, One Life serves as a powerful reminder of the impact one person can make and the enduring importance of humanitarian efforts in the face of adversity.