The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia, from November 3 to 19. Joshua Polanski will be reviewing for Midwest Film Journal live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage. 

The Academy Award-winning costume designer behind Black Panther, Ruth Carter once noted she didn’t just start making superhero films. She’s been making them for decades, with a filmography that includes Malcolm X, Amistad and Selma. Carter’s right. There are two different kinds of superhero films: the corporate comic-book “blue beam” film and the kind of film One Life is — a story about one of the people that forever changed our world. The difference between the two is heroism.

Played by Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn (2018’s Beast) in James Hawes’s new film, Nicholas Winton is the subject of the famous That’s Life! news broadcast where the entire live audience stands up and reveals that each and every one of them owes their life to Winton, who helped them escape Czechoslovakia as children on the eve of Nazi invasion. In total, Winton saved 669 children from slaughter in the Shoah. Today, more than 6,000 people owe the debt of life to Winton and his colleagues Martin Blake (Jonathan Pryce), Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai), and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) from the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. 

The film, which is showing as part of the Best of Festivals program at PӦFF, jumps between Winton’s reflections through press interactions in the 1980s and his rescue work in the late 1930s (with Hopkins obviously playing the elder version of the character). The audience reenacting the BBC broadcast in the film included actual members of the group that calls themselves “Winton’s Children,” taking one more step to remove the film from the movie theater or television screen and into real life. And in doing so, One Life models itself as an exemplary biographical picture.

If you know the story or have seen the BBC broadcast, One Life offers the most straightforward and even predictable version of Winton’s life and the Kindertransport. And in doing so, Hawes normalizes the film’s protagonist. Hopkins plays the part of the elder Winton with grace, dignity, and humility — intentionally minimizing his screen presence in the process. Flynn is equally reserved (though more impassioned) as the younger version in media res of the rescue operation. 

Winton may be the film’s subject, but the central performances provide a complementary alternative — the children saved. Hopkins’ tears are kept to a minimum, his facial expressions are controlled, and he never gives the grandiose sort of Oscar-bait speech that he could have. In part because of their shared screen time, I doubt either Hopkins or Flynn will get nominated for an Academy Award for the performance … but had either given a different sort of performance, the one that the Academy often celebrates, the film would be worse for it.

The editing that organizes the story into two timelines reinforces that this is not really a story about the 669 children rescued but about the people who rescued them. It’s not a snapshot of humanitarian aid or a dirge for human suffering. This is a celebration, one that a familiar audience knows full well will climax not with WWII but with the BBC, which contributed to the film’s production. As self-serving as its intentions may be (capitalizing on the viral video from their archives), the effect is worthwhile. To quote the well-known Margaret Mead saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

While this author’s own view of history doesn’t fully agree, it’s a quote with a grain of truth to it. Winton, Blake, Warriner and Chadwick were some of those committed citizens, and Hawes’s film about them is a simple and momentous celebration of the sort of heroism incarnated.

The end credits mention that Winton lived to be 106. Perhaps that was divine, dumb luck, or something else, but if it’s possible to merit a life into centenarian-ship, this is the man worthy. And the tear-jerker film that is One Life is an excellent ode to a model of non-violent heroism.

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, and East Asian & Middle Eastern film. He is currently based in Akron, Ohio.