One Life 

Rated PG

Opens Boxing Day

One life is all that we’re given, and as people of faith we know that we need to live ours for the glory of God. But it can feel as though we are swimming against an ever-rising tide – of secularism, apathy, disinterest or even hostility. Can one person really make a difference? This film, based on the true story of Englishman Nicholas Winton, powerfully shows the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes” 

Winton’s parents were Jewish, and although he was baptised into the Church of England, he described himself as an agnostic. Yet, the choices he made and how he chose to live challenges anyone tempted to give up amid difficulties or “pass by on the other side” and ignore those in need. It’s also a cracking good story.

The action in the film pivots seamlessly between late 1930s Europe and the town of Maidenhead, west of London, in 1987, where an elderly Nicholas Winton (Anthony Hopkins) lives with his wife Greta. He’s a nondescript fellow in spectacles and a cardigan who volunteers for charitable organisations, likes to swim in his backyard pool, and hoards a lifetime’s worth of papers and “useful” things. He’s also the kind of person anyone might pass on the street and not give a second glance.

While he looks serene, unflappable and uninteresting, beneath the surface Winton is haunted by faces and memories.

Back in late 1938, we see him take a week away from his London stockbroking job to provide administrative support to a refugee organisation in Prague – a group caring for thousands of displaced people, mainly Jews, who are fleeing the Nazis. Winton (played in this era by Johnny Flynn) is so appalled by the conditions the refugees are living in, particularly the children, that he stays to try and help create a workable solution.

Thus begins a work that would consume the following nine months and echo throughout the rest of his life. Winton hatches a plan to find homes for these German, Austrian and Czech children in the safety of the UK, with the hope of reuniting them with family after the danger is over.

Each child requires a visa, a family willing to take them in, funds, plus innumerable forms and photos, and he climbs this administrative mountain with the help of his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and other willing pairs of hands.

To say much more would spoil the tale, but a few things are worth noting. Winton was educated, comfortably off and – on the face of it – not in a position to do anything to solve the problems he saw. He was, essentially, no one.

However, at every point he acts because it is the right thing to do. As he explains to a rabbi in Prague: “I have seen this and I cannot unsee it... and because I may be able to do something about it I must... try”. 

He also dismisses his efforts as unimportant, partly because others are in far greater danger but also because he feels anyone in his situation would have done the same as he. Which, of course, we know is not true. So many people, then as now, see conflict, war and injustice and choose to do nothing at all. Or, if they get involved, trumpet their efforts to the world. 

Winton coupled compassion and dedication with humility and, with an admirable lack of fuss, he continued to help provide care and succour to the needy for the rest of his life. 

One Life could have been ruined by schmaltz, unnecessary subplots or a lack of subtlety. Instead, it is quietly powerful, thoughtful and tightly scripted, with Anthony Hopkins’ skilled portrayal of the older Nicholas as the standout performance – giving us a window into the heart of this complex, gentle man. 

Other movies this season will make more box office noise, but you won’t find a better film to see this summer than One Life.

Also releasing in the next month

Wish (Boxing Day)

Whether it’s wishing upon a star, looking to a genie or wanting a different life, Disney has a lot of stock in wish fulfilment. This animated film shows what happens when the power to grant wishes is in the hands of a king who only wants what benefits himself, so his people hope in vain. The king’s apprentice, Asha, makes her own wish upon a star and it’s answered – but what was it, and how will it play out? This is all about magic, wonder and the power of the will to fulfil your dreams – all very Disney. Down to the talking pet goat. Some elements may frighten very young viewers.

Next Goal Wins (New Year’s Day), rated M

Kiwi writer-director Taika Waititi continues his mission to bring stories from Polynesian cultures to the screen. With his trademark good humour and quirkiness, we’re told the true story of the national soccer team from American Samoa – which, as one character says, hasn’t scored a single goal “in the history of our country trying to have a soccer team”. And they want one: just one. Coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), fired from his previous job, is given the option to be unemployed or coach American Samoa, so he gets on a plane. If you want deep or serious, pick another film. Adult themes (including the coach’s drinking) plus coarse language.

The Boys in the Boat (January 4)

A simple description of this would be a secular, American Chariots of Fire, but that’s a little unfair. Yes, it’s a slick, underdogs-make-good and hooray for America film, but it’s also a real-life tale showing how a group of poor young men from Washington state – through hard work, perseverance and trust – overcome a lack of funds, experience and expectation to become a powerful rowing force in the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Directed by George Clooney; stars Joel Edgerton and Callum Turner.

The Holdovers (January 11)

This is being talked about as the kind of movie people will want to watch every Christmas – although apparently that’s not at all what director Alexander Payne intended. Set in 1970 at a US boarding school, it stars Paul Giamatti as a grumpy, unpopular teacher who has to stay behind over the festive season to look after a handful of students. He is joined by the head cook, whose son has just died in Vietnam, and the angst-ridden, unwanted Angus. It’s obvious these three will grow to understand and appreciate each other during their time together, but character development and good performances help the viewer take that journey with them. Coarse language, drug use and sexual material.