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Movie review: One Life

An understated tone bolsters the impact of the fact-based drama “One Life” (Bleecker Street). The educational value and formative potential of the film’s uplifting story, a lesser-known chapter in the history of the Holocaust, moreover, make it probably acceptable for older teens, despite some off-color vocabulary in the script.

Johnny Flynn plays British stockbroker Nicholas Winton. Born to Jewish-German parents – Helena Bonham Carter portrays his redoubtable mother, Babi – Nicholas has connections to the anti-Nazi resistance movement on the continent. Through them, he becomes involved, on the eve of World War II, in the effort to rescue vulnerable children in occupied Czechoslovakia.

With more than 1,000 kids displaced and living in life-threateningly unhealthy conditions, Nicholas sets himself the daunting goal of transporting all of them to safety in the United Kingdom. This will involve documenting each child’s identity, obtaining the cooperation of the British authorities, finding foster parents to take the little ones in and raising the funds to finance their eventual return.

Scenes set in the late 1930s are interspersed with sequences from 50 years later when a now-elderly Nicholas (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on his pre-war activities. His efforts to find a home for the scrapbook he compiled about his work lead, through no effort on his part, to belated public recognition of his remarkable accomplishments.

What makes Nicholas’s tale especially intriguing is the fact that his heroism did not consist in bold deeds on the battlefield or risky undertakings behind enemy lines. Instead, he achieved formidable humanitarian results through his gift for methodical organization as well as his persistence – and Babi’s – in overcoming bureaucratic red tape and official indifference.

Director James Hawes’s restrained approach allows viewers to appreciate all this for themselves. As youthful Nicholas observes, in a characteristic exchange, if he seems to have a lot of faith in ordinary people, it’s precisely because he’s an ordinary person. The heights such an individual can attain are well illustrated in this subtly moving profile.

The film contains mature themes, scenes of children in distress, at least one use of profanity, several milder oaths and fleeting crude and crass language. The OSV News classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.