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One Life



ONE LIFE (2023) is the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who masterminded the salvation of 669 child refugees from Sudetenland (soon to become Czechoslovakia) in 1939, so saving them from the Nazi persecution that many of the parents they were thus separated from suffered in the death camps.


The film has strengths and weaknesses that, of course, lie in the screenplay - and elsewhere. Solid performances from Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Johnny Flynn are among its strengths. However, I feel the film could have been improved along the following lines:


The screenwriters (and/or the producers they were obliged to receive screenplay notes from) chose to set the story along two timelines: Nicholas Winton in 1987, and the same character in 1938/9, when he strove courageously to save the refugee children. This narrative strategy requires constant movement between these two timelines. Moving around in time like this – using flashbacks – dislodges an audience from whichever timeline is the principle plot (in screenwriting terms, the arch plot). That means the audience has to re-engage with the story and characters repeatedly. This is not ideal. I think flashbacks should be avoided in films whenever possible, so the audience can be immersed as completely as possible in one time and place, and in characters in that context.


The producers no doubt felt they had to feature Nicholas Winton’s 1987 story, however, and casting Anthony Hopkins in that role would have cemented that commitment. While the film moves quite well between the two timelines, I suggest that a more compelling narrative could have been created by staying with young Nicholas Winton in 1938/9 throughout 98% of the story, and then time cutting forward to 1987, where, say, we find mature Nicholas Winton in the ‘That’s Life!’ studio with the adults who were the children he saved. I suggest that this would offer a cameo role to Mr Hopkins, and that cameo would have lent the power of his presence to the film sufficiently to have helped it find success.


I would have cast young Nicholas Winton differently in this scenario. While Johnny Flynn is clearly talented, he doesn’t have the stature and star-power required to ‘open’ the film. I would have cast, say, a Nicholas Hoult or someone of similar start-power in the role of young Nicholas Winton to carry the film as its lead character. The actor budget spent on hiring Anthony Hopkins for (presumably) several week could have been spent on hiring a more famous actor to play young Nicholas, focussed on thus in the above storyline scenario.


Young Nicholas Winton is also absent from the action climax of the film, which is the failure of the 9th train carrying refugee children to leave Prague station because Hitler had just invaded Poland, and the station is overrun by German soldiers just before the train pulls out. If young Nicholas had been there, the central focus of the story would have been involved in its climax, and put in danger. An issue with the film is that Nicholas Winton is never in danger. He has no emotional attachment to the story other than that of passionate common decency and empathy with the children, either. Admirable and moving, of course; but giving him a romantic attachment to the Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai) character would have enriched the film with relatable emotional intensity. They might have been parted by the Nazis on the platform when the train is prevented from departing, leaving young Nicholas in a state of extreme dejection - and perhaps in danger of his life as he fights to get to Doreen, and to get the train the pull out at any cost. In this way, the story would have been hugely enriched as a narrative with an action climax that (like all good action climaxes) is a manifestation of profound emotions. The film lacked such a climax, however. We move back to 1987 after the train fails to pull out of the station, where far too little happens.

   

I think the decision to show Nicholas Winton as tearfully sad about the past was a mistake, too – one perhaps caused by the reflex to make all dramas sad. I suspect mature Nicholas would have pretty philosophic in his brisk, ‘British’ way, and if anything, proud to have saved so many lives. This emotional uptick could have been made to work well, leaving the audience with humble hope rather than a pall of gloom. If anything, the name Nicholas Winton in a hopeful name – one that says good things about people. I think this film should have reflected that sentiment. Instead, it chooses grief as a dramatic mandate of the story climax. 1939 Nicholas could have been left in tears; but 1987 Nicholas could have left us with a reflective, wry smile – joy to be reunited with those he saved on the TV show.


When adapting reality to the screen, it’s ALWAYS reality that must give way because story is everything in film. For whatever reasons, that mandate wasn’t applied to this production, solid as it is.


All films are ways by which we can improve our screenwriting through observation – solid though improvable films like ONE LIFE very much included. So watch lots of films and read lots of screenplays – then get writing. Get professional feedback on your screenplays and have the courage to act on that feedback. If Nicholas Winton had the courage to defy the Nazis and save the lives of 669 children, you can certainly find the courage to become the best screenwriter you can be.

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