“One Life” is perhaps about as traditional as you can get in terms of tear-jerking British awards bait, and whilst it may not have been entirely for me, turning to the person adjacent and seeing them polish off a whole packet and a half of tissues by the time the film’s credits rolled, did at least convince me somewhat of this film’s power beyond just a bland retelling of a story inherently built-in with emotive elements. It is surprisingly hard not to be at least slightly charmed by the whole affair, yet the obvious emotional manipulation prevents it from being truly captivating or special.

With James Hawes in the directing chair, primarily known for his work on television, including the first series of “Slow Horses,” the film tells the startling story of Nicholas Winton’s attempts to rescue Jewish refugees before and during Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, in addition to the aftermath of this harrowing tale being uncovered and the infamous live-broadcast stunt that followed. It conveys the narrative through both a present timeline leading up to the live broadcast, with Winton portrayed by recent Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, and a series of flashbacks depicting the operation, where Johnny Flynn plays our principal protagonist.

Winton is an incredibly endearing focus in both parts, with a solid, consistent quality to both performances. However, he isn’t a very complex one, not undergoing real growth or change over the course of the film, aside from perhaps shoehorned references to “letting go of the past.” This unloading of baggage as a key element of the film doesn’t work, given Winton’s desire to get the story the recognition it deserves. A paradox is therefore created, which will leave many to question the point of the film. It can’t arrive as both a personal character study of a man haunted by the past and an inspirational retelling of it at the same time. Yet, in trying to achieve both – it fails to meet either objective.

One Life (2023) Movie Review
A still from One Life (2023)

Additionally, “One Life” isn’t quite able to string together both narrative throughlines, almost arbitrarily cutting between them in parts, killing the pacing, as the Hopkins-led elements are inherently far slower than the story of Winton’s past, creating quite a disjointed final product. A further problem is that the flashbacks are, to put it simply, far more interesting than most of the elements set fifty years later. Only once the story of operation “Kindertransport” reaches its natural dramatic conclusion and the build-up to the television stunt begins to come to the forefront does Nicholas’ present story become more compelling.

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This is also a film, where if you have seen the trailer or have any familiarity with the story going in, you will not be offered anything unexpected. “One Life” chooses to convey its narrative in the most predictable and safest way possible, leaving it remarkably unmemorable in its strict adoption of tried and tested storytelling methods to achieve emotional resonance. Through the swelling of the score and Hopkin’s subtle, tearful performance, it delivers what it sets out to in terms of forcing an audience reaction. Still, it is difficult not to view the moment as fairly artificial and unearned, as it would have had the exact same effect watching the actual real-life moment. The distinct lack of ambition means it never really warrants its existence in the medium of film.

“One Life” is aided through some impressive moments; the sequence of the Nazis taking control of the train station moments before the final train can leave is very moving, as the editing quickens to convey the chaos of the affair, and the dialogue these performers are given does have a much appreciated urgent quality to it. In particular, a simple scene between Johnathan Pryce and Hopkins having lunch is brilliant in its snappy quality. In moments, it is therefore well constructed – visually impressive with colorful performances – but as an overall package, it is somewhat lacking in the ambition to make it something truly distinct.

“One Life” is a tough film to actively dislike. Does it deliver on its premise of capturing this extraordinary story in a touching, heartfelt manner? Undoubtedly. Will its final moments be tear-jerking and emotionally impactful for many audience members? Most likely. But perhaps the most pressing question is whether it will actually leave spectators with anything to think about once the credits roll, and to this, I’m less certain. Whilst the film sheds light on a story worth telling, its narrative construction is messy, to say the least, and is too comfortable to hit on familiar beats and explore simple ideas that it is never able to break out and transform into something that will hold a lasting impact. It’s worthwhile but unremarkable.


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One Life (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
One Life (2023) Movie Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Flynn, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Alex Sharp, Jonathan Pryce
One Life (2023) Movie Genre: History/Drama, Runtime: 1h 50m
Where to watch One Life

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