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Nicholas Winton

It only takes one life

The viral video of Nicholas Winton surrounded by children he saved during the Holocaust has deeply touched many people around the world. Despite his deep humility, Winton's story is finally being told.

Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton.
Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton.

When One Life screened in London early in October, there were 20 of Nicholas Winton’s ‘children’ in the audience. Alongside them were 200 descendants. When they were asked to stand at the completion of the film, producer Emile Sherman got chills.

Alongside his partner, Iain, he has produced major blockbuster films like Lion and The King’s Speech. But still, he said seeing ‘Nicky’s Children’ stand in honour of the man who saved them, made it one of the most emotional screenings he has been to.

The film – which tells the story of Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker who rescued hundreds of children from Czechoslovakia during World War II and then said nothing about his deeds for more than 50 years – has been in development for almost two decades, Sherman told The AJN.

“Iain [Canning] and I started looking at this story as early as we started See Saw Films,” Sherman said. “We were in London at the time, making The King’s Speech, and we came across the That’s Life YouTube clip. We knew we had an incredible end of a story. The question was, ‘what was the actual story?’”

Sherman said that Winton’s story sits very much alongside some of the most spine-tingling true stories out there – hair on your neck standing up kind of stuff.

When Sherman and Canning met with Winton, he didn’t understand why anyone would be interested in his story.

Helena Bonham Carter as Nicholas’ mother, Babette Winton

“It was so striking just how genuine his humility was,” Sherman recalled. “And that’s the power of this film. It comes from someone who was driven by the basic human desire to do good but doesn’t think it’s special. And you can see that at the end of the That’s Life clip. He doesn’t feel the need for recognition that he has done something special.”

Sherman explained that when developing the script with writers Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, the team made a point of ensuring they stuck to the core of the story – Winton’s humility.

“It’s a film about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but not seeing themselves as extraordinary. Really, it’s about common decency,” Sherman said.

It’s something that certainly comes across through Anthony Hopkins, particularly, as Sherman points out, in a poignant scene between Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who plays Martin Blake – a friend of Winton’s and an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia – which Sherman counts as one of his favourites.

“I could watch that scene over and over again,” Sherman said. “They’re both just so alive and in the moment, and able to take a scene which is a really lovely scene on paper and elevate it into something that’s really electric.”

One Life also deals with the torment that Winton felt at the children he couldn’t save. While Winton arranged for 669 children to be brought to the UK by train, earning him the nickname Britain’s Oskar Schindler, he was haunted by the children who never made it to safety.

“As we dug into his story further, we realised how pained he was that he wasn’t able to save more children; that the ninth train didn’t make it because the war started before he was able to save the biggest trainload of children,” Sherman explained.

The film had its European premiere mere days after the brutal attack by Hamas where terrorists killed 1200 Israelis and took 240 more hostage. Sherman acknowledged the heightened emotions around the premiere and the film, explaining that perhaps, we can all learn a bit of humanity from One Life and Winton’s story.

“At its centre, the film is a call to humanity, and what brings us together is a shared sense of humanity. If this film can do anything, it’s to cast a light on the fact that what unites us is more than what divides us,” he said.

The title, One Life, comes of course from the Talmudic phrase “whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world”. It’s a personal responsibility that Sherman hopes to evoke in audiences through the telling of Winton’s story, because when it comes down to it, Winton didn’t just save 669 lives through the transports but thousands and thousands of lives as their families continue to grow.

Johnny Flynn as the young Nicholas Winton.

“We all have a tikkun olam obligation to heal the world, healing one life, whether it’s for one’s family, community; whatever social justice we can engage with is an infinite act of good. That’s the message of the film,” Sherman said before detailing something that was overhead following the London screening of the film.

“My friend heard two girls talking, saying they just felt like they had to do something, volunteer. They felt compelled to be involved in something that was more than them,” he said. “What can we do as an ordinary person to positively affect the world? That was Nicky’s call.”

One Life will screen around

Australia from Boxing Day.

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