QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Nicholas “Nicky” Cohen is a stockbroker living a fairly quiet life in London during the year of 1938. One day, he visits Prague in order to help his friend Martin Blake (Ziggy Heath), an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. He is staunchly opposed to appeasement and concerned about an imminent Nazi invasion. Played here by Johnny Flynn, Nicky devotes his full time to the removal of as many children as possible from the precarious situation. Most of them are Jews fleeing the Sudatenland and already living as refugees. Nicky’s parents were Jews who converted to Christianity, the only religion he genuinely knew. It isn’t religious affiliation that moves our protagonist, but instead his selfless humanitarian determination (perhaps aided by his socialist convictions).
Bringing the children to the UK is no easy task. Nicky is told that “His Majesty’s Britain does not believe that these children are in danger” (sounds like something taken straight out of Suella Braverman’s handbook of hostilities). His mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter) helps him to persuade authorities to honour the country’s so-called humanitarian values, but not without laying out a number of Draconian requirements: medical records, a foster family and £50 admin fee (roughly £3,000 in today’s money) for each child. It’s never entirely clear how Nicky overcomes these barriers (in a film with quite a few plot holes), but he does eventually manage to bring 669 children to the UK on eight different trains leaving at different dates. We later find out that 15,000 Czechoslovakian children were sent to concentration camps, and fewer than 200 survived (a useful benchmark of the dimensions of Nicky’s deeds).
Forward to 1987. Nicky is an old man (now played by 85-year-old actor Anthony Hopkins), living a quiet life with his wife Grete (Lena Olin) in leafy suburban Maidenhead. He has kept the records of every single one of the children that he saved for five decades. Yet he wallows in guilt for not saving a final 250 children, whose journey (on what would have been the ninth train) was aborted by the Nazis on September 1st 1939 (the day Poland was invaded and WW2 broke). His old friend Martin (now played by Jonathan Pryce) tries to convince Nicky that his actions were heroic, and that he has every right to talk about his achievements (the interaction may bring Fernando Meirelles’s 2019 Two Popes to mind, a film in which the two Welsh actors converse extensively). Nicky does not possess any sense of pride, but instead a very pragmatic sense os solidarity. He insists that the operations involved many others, and that it’s unfair that he should take the credit on his own. While I have little doubt that Nicky was a phenomenal human being, I wonder how much romanticisation has been injected into this tearjerker. By comparison, the scene of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List in which Oskar Schindler desperately laments the further people that he could have saved (by selling his car and other goods) is entirely made up.
The most emotional moments come in the final third of this 110-minute movie, when now defunct BBC consumer affairs show That’s Life! invites Nicky live on air in order to meet one of the children that he saved half a century earlier. He returns to the programme a few months later for a much bigger surprise. It is impossible not to be moved by octogenarian Hopkins, who delivers an honest and tear-inducing performance. His abilities aren’t always entirely matched by other actors: some of the most dramatic scenes (such as the children waving goodbye to their parents as their trains depart) feel a little dispassionate, and poorly staged.
Overall, this is a heartwarming and inspiring historical drama about the actions of one man, and a powerful reminder that each and every single one of us has a lot of power in our hands, and we can make a huge difference if we try. The film title refers to a commemorative ring that was presented to Sir Nicholas Winton by Czech and Slovak Kinder at a reunion in June 1988. The piece of jewelry was engraved with the words “Save one life, save the world”.
One Life just showed in the Best of Festivals section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.