Production focus: 'One Life'

“We are all capable of doing something extraordinary, even if we feel very ordinary.”

By Geoffrey Macnab 25 Dec 2023

Production focus: 'One Life'
Anthony Hopkins and James Hawes; Cr: WB

One Life tells the story of Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker who rescued hundreds of children from Nazi Germany. Geoffrey Macnab speaks to the filmmakers about “Britain’s Oskar Schindler”

“I had grown up as a kid with That’s Life!. I can remember my parents being totally obsessed with it,” recalls producer Iain Canning, co-founder of See-Saw Films, of the Sunday night BBC1 show hosted by Esther Rantzen that regularly attracted audiences of 15 million or more in the UK. The show focused on tongue-in-cheek human-interest stories. Sometimes, though, it turned a little more serious.

It was on That’s Life! in 1988 when Nicholas Winton, the stockbroker later nicknamed “Britain’s Oskar Schindler”, was reunited with some of the 669 children he had saved from the Nazis in the late 1930s in the run-up to the Second World War. 

Winton had organised for these children, many of them Jewish and/or orphans, to be brought to the UK by train.

Footage of the reunion continued to be watched online long after the show’s broadcast. “It just seemed so strange to me that a man in his 70s or 80s would be in this audience, confronted with this moment,” observes Canning. “All these children he had saved, this was the first time he was in touch with them in a real, substantial way.”

When Canning was midway through filming The King’s Speech, which would go on to win the 2011 best picture Oscar, he and his See‑Saw partner Emile Sherman skipped lunch on the set one day so they could visit Winton at his home in Maidenhead, west of London. “He was the most humble human being I have ever met,” says Canning, who was already thinking about a film. But Winton, who died in 2015, did not seem to have any interest in further publicising his story. However, later, when Winton’s daughter Barbara Winton was looking for someone to adapt the book she had written about her father — One Life: The True Story Of Sir Nicholas Winton — she reached out to See-Saw.

BBC Film came on board the project “right from the beginning”, says Canning, with US sales outfit FilmNation also early to join. International distributors were quickly drawn to a project which, as scripted by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, resembles The King’s Speech in how it depicts, as Canning puts it, “a historical journey with an uplifting ending”.

But the pandemic hit just as all the elements of the production were falling into place. “We suddenly had inflation and the difficulty of making independent films during a period of a lot of high-end TV production,” says Canning of a project that was not quite as straightforward to put together as might have been anticipated. “We definitely felt the challenges that everyone was feeling in that independent film space.” There were plenty of obstacles to overcome: the film is set partly in late-1930s Prague, and partly in late-1980s England, which posed a double challenge in terms of period details; and the cast included large numbers of children.

“It wasn’t an easy film to finance because independent film itself was in a state of flux,” Canning notes. “We felt we were at a real pinch point because of inflation in the UK and because of the ambition of the film.” (Other partners include MBK Productions, Cross City Films and Lipsync.)

The schedule was tight too — just 33 shooting days. The producers pay tribute to director James Hawes, who had worked with See-Saw on Apple TV+ series Slow Horses. Hawes, also a documentary maker, had filmed in war zones and was no stranger to pressure. He was able to win the trust of heavyweight acting talent such as Anthony Hopkins (who stars as Winton), Helena Bonham Carter (who plays the young Winton’s mother) and Sweden’s Lena Olin (who plays his wife). Hawes had previously worked with Johnny Flynn, cast as the younger Winton in the 1930s scenes, on TV drama Genius in which Flynn played Albert Einstein.

“Some people are very calm and relaxed and safe,” says See-Saw producer Joanna Laurie of Hawes who, at the start of his career, had been a researcher on That’s Life!. “I was directing fringe theatre and getting short-term contracts at the BBC around a mix of different shows,” recalls Hawes. So he was immediately interested when Canning sounded him out about directing.

“It has that thing of being a story people know a bit about, but they don’t know all of,” he notes. “There is enough to catch people’s interest but then [there is the opportunity] to put much more flesh on it. I am also fascinated by stories of underdogs, of people fighting against the system to do something that is patently good. Its resonance for now was screamingly obvious, and that to me felt important.”

Since making the film, Hawes has been invited onto the That’s Life! WhatsApp group — “a huge honour,” he says with a laugh. Rantzen has seen the film and was “hugely taken” by it. “She sobbed a lot and then laughed when she saw herself being portrayed and remarked that if she spoke as slowly as Samantha Spiro [the actress who plays Rantzen] spoke, she would never have survived on the BBC.”

It was Barbara Winton (who has an executive producer credit but died during principal photography) who first suggested Hopkins would be the “perfect person” to play her father. “We didn’t have that moment of having to think about anyone else,” recalls Laurie.

Launch pad

One Life premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in September, followed a month later by an emotional gala screening at BFI London Film Festival attended by Winton evacuees and descendants. Warner Bros releases the film in the UK in January, with Bleecker Street to follow in North America.

“It’s a celebration of [Winton’s] humility,” says Canning of the film. “Somebody you might look on in the street as an old man might have an incredible history. That was his biggest fear — that we would make a film in which we didn’t show we all have the capacity to help another person. It’s not because you’re Superman — it’s whether you choose to do it.”

“We are all capable of doing something extraordinary, even if we feel very ordinary,” adds Laurie.

Winton’s scrapbook, in which he kept photos of the children he helped to rescue, is now in the possession of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem.

While others see him as a true hero, that was not how he saw himself. “How do you foreground someone who wants to be in the background?” asks Laurie. Both she and Canning talk of the topicality of the film. Amid today’s refugee crisis, what, Canning asks, is “our responsibility to help others”?

Like See-Saw’s 2016 feature Lion, through which the producers helped raise awareness of child poverty in India, One Life is a tearjerker with a conscience. Many relatives of those rescued by Winton and his team feature in the movie’s That’s Life! sequence. This made filming an emotional experience for all concerned.

“It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” says Laurie. “We are all aware the children who are still alive are all quite old now. To be able to honour their story, to be able to honour the people who did not survive the Holocaust, and to be able to bring some of them and their descendants into an audience to recreate this moment which means so much to them… was so special. People travelled from far and wide to join us. Everyone was crying. It is unforgettable.”

Canning agrees. “That day was one of the highlights of my career,” he recalls. “It felt bigger than anything. It was very special. I remember after James called cut, walking round the corner, and seeing the costume and make-up and hair teams in floods of tears. It felt like a shared moment for everybody. I don’t think the weight or the gravity or the importance of it was wasted on anyone.” 

This article originally appeared on our sister site Screen

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