Birthday movie review: One Life

(courtesy IMP Awards)

If you haven’t directly exposed to the horrific vague ways in which people treat each other in war, violence and conflict, and how malevolently destructive extremist beliefs can be, it can be hard for them to move beyond the realm of dark and terrible things.

We know that what happened in World War Two, which saw the world and its people rent catastrophically in two with many wiped off the map altogether, was evil in its most terrible form, but while we know the facts, it’s not until a film like One Life comes along that we truly to begin to feel and fully appreciate what it is like to both experience that kind of dark terror but also what it is like to oppose it.

In this film, based on the book, If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, written by Barbara Winton, we meet Nicholas Winton, who in 1938 facilitated the evacuation, in what came to be known as the Kindertransport, of 669 mostly Jewish from Czechoslovakia which was being taken over by the Germans piece by people-crushing piece.

Arriving in Prague for what is supposed to be a week to help a friend called Martin (Ziggy Heath; later played by Jonathan Pryce) who was an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia which was doing what it could to the thousands of people displaced by the Nazis, Winton soon finds himself working on a plan, with dedicated volunteers like Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp), to get as many children to the UK as they could for what was deemed as a temporary move.

Of course, as we know from history, these children end up permanently in their country of refuge, with all of them seeing their parents, siblings and cousins for the last time as they stepped onto the train in Prague which eventually wounds its way to London’s Liverpool Street station.

There are a great many things that emerge from this powerful film, which alternates seamlessly between the events of 1938-39 – the entire Kindertransport happened over ten frantic weeks as the Nazis, already in Sudetenland, loomed ever larger over all of Czechoslovakia – and 1988 when Winton is featured on the BBC program, That’s Life, where he unexpectedly meets the grown-up people he saved, but perhaps the most striking is how incredibly brave people can be in the face of great and terrible evil.

It is clear from the moment that Winton arrives in Prague that what is happening in Czechoslovakia, and indeed all of Europe will not end well and that the people who have arrived in the city seeking refuge, many of them Jews all too aware of what the Nazis will mete out to them should they fall under their control, face almost certain annihilation until good people do something.

People like Winton who upon his return to London after a month in Prague, enlists his German Jewish immigrant mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter in gloriously fierce, no-nonsense mode) and a slew of friends and the media to raise funds to get the children to Britain and to safety.

It’s a massive undertaking, and requires begging of favours from initially reluctant bureaucrats, appeals for foster families to take in the children and the coordination of eight trains of children who have to cross through hostile countries such as Germany to make good on their escape.

There’s no way to describe what Winton and his friends do as anything but heroic and watching how these people risk so much to save others is inspiring in the extreme and fills One Life with a sense of how evil may be towering and overwhelming but that the strength and determination of people willing to counter is more powerful and effective still.

What marks One Life as something special though it grounds all these undeniably heroic work in the reality of what it is like to do great things but feel like you could have done so much more.

Winton in 1988, which is when his story emerges in the media and captivates the UK and the world, is haunted by all the children he couldn’t save and as a man of almost 80 at the time, has worked hard across all kinds of charitable endeavours to atone for what he feels were his failures to do more.

It’s only when his story reaches a wider audience beyond his wife Grete (Lena Olin) and when he meets many of the now adult children he saved that he comes to understand just how great a thing he and those who stood with him accomplished and how many people lived because he and others of like mind were willing to do something and not just stand by.

In a way, while coming to terms with his legacy is painful and deeply emotionally sobering, evidenced by one scene post his first appearance on That’s Life where he sobs at home as he’s held by a beautifully compassionate Grete, it is also freeing because he can finally appreciate what it is he and so many other brave people did.

They didn’t save everyone, and yes, that’s a tragedy (but crucially not one of their making) but the people they did save went on to lead beautiful and productive and emotionally rich lives and that is an achievement worth singing from the rooftops about.

One Life is far more nuanced and circumspect than that but the effect is much the same as we witness the evil and depravity of some people, and the pain and vulnerability of those at their mercy, but also how very good and ordinary people can change the world, at least for 669 children, because they are brave enough to take stand, risk everything and make a difference that will profoundly and moving echo down through successive years.

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