One Life and the Depiction of a Life Dedicated To Doing Good

 "If you do this work, it should be for life"

The voice at the end of the crackling phone line was ageless, but even without asking, I could tell she had decades of wisdom and stories to share. She had moved to Alabama from Holland decades ago. The memory of the minutiae of our conversation has faded, but I think about that voice, curious and generous, often. 

Our discussion happened almost two years ago when she gave me her phone number and graciously indulged me as I rattled off my idealistic and youthful vision. This woman and I shared the common belief that humans are deserving of life, no matter what their past may be. She runs an organisation in Alabama where she and the rest of the team regularly host meetings with the men locked up in William C. Holman Correctional Facility: Alabama's death row. 

My belief is that movies help us better understand ourselves. They also help us better understand one another and help us realise that the colours we choose to paint our lives with matter. 

James Hawes's first theatrical film, One Life, depicts the humanitarian work of Nicholas Winton, whose bold vision and perseverance helped save the lives of 669 children at the start of the Second World War.

Anthony Hopkins plays an older Winton, while Johnny Flynn shoulders the war-time narrative. On the surface, it appears to be a standard tale where bright-eyed do-gooders boldly stand up in the face of adversity. Critics gave it a respectable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the film has been slapped with the "straightforward biographical drama" brush that disrespects how artfully it depicts the struggle of what happens when a self-proclaimed "ordinary person" is required to do the work of a government. 

The weight of a life dedicated to fighting the noble fight kicks off at the beginning when Winton hears about the deportation of refugees over the radio. He listens briefly before switching the radio off, silencing the tones of what we soon see to be the antithesis of his life. The country is desperate to remove people like the ones he once helped. It's such a simple moment that encapsulates past and present, particularly because the film's "present" is the 1980s. In 2023, history repeats with Rishi Sunak grasping desperately at his pitiful Rwanda Bill that aims to dehumanise the most vulnerable. 

Winton's most vulnerable are the children of Czechoslovakia. On his first trip to the country, he's met by a child following him, hoping the man with a camera hanging from his neck might have something to ease her troubles. Nicholas apologises before revealing a bar of chocolate, a simple act that earns a wondrous smile. Within seconds, Winton is surrounded by children, and he soon realises that you can help some, but you cannot help all. 

Like Winton, I dream the idealistic dream that my determination might be enough to save the world. What he initially planned to be a week doing his bit for the cause becomes a mission that lasts a lifetime.

Anthony Hopkins has an Academy Award for a reason. He's a genius at inhabiting the details. Hopkins could've done the movie without saying a word because we see his mind ticking like clockwork. He is as sincere as Winton was himself - as any humanitarian is when they do the work for the right reasons - like the woman on the crackly telephone in Alabama.

They do it not because they want to - or because they wish for recognition - they do it because they must. 

They hear the call that no one else is picking up. Winton was a stockbroker, an "ordinary person" with an ordinary job who believed in the power of ordinary people to exhibit extraordinary resilience. He and his team fought for the impossible and won out.

Early in his endeavour, Winton meets with a Jewish man who tells him a Hebrew phrase which translates to: "Do not start what you cannot finish". Johnny Flynn's Winton looks fearful that he may not be able to complete the mammoth task, but he soaks the lesson in, and it remains with him for life as we hear Anthony Hopkins echo the words decades later: "I must finish what I started". 

It's an easily missable moment, one that might breeze right on by. But it's an important one because when you're fighting against injustice, the community you form around you is everything. The stories you hear along the way become your North Star. Winton's "Do not start what you cannot finish" is my "If you do this work, it should be for life". It's a call to action. A reminder that the occasional good deed or act of kindness is not enough to keep society afloat. We must bathe in the habit of what the Bible says in Matthew 6:3-4: "When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret". 

Winton, both in past and present, rejects any notion that he is a "hero" because language is important. A hero is no longer a person but a body placed upon a pedestal designed to be admired but not emulated. Ordinary people stick their right hands out every day without a shred of notoriety because it is what is just.

Ordinary people like the woman in Alabama who committed to helping society's most hated won't have their stories told - but One Life will give audiences a glimpse at how life looks when you live for something beyond the self. 

It looks like switching off the radio as it mocks your mission. It looks like staring out windows, wondering if you've done enough each day. It looks like batting down praise because that's not the point. It looks like memories of the bleak reality of humanity seeping into your consciousness in the most unexpected moments. 

Hawes remarkably mirrors truth and shows how compassion births new hope. He will not get the praise he deserves for his magnificent movie, just like most people will not get the praise they deserve for extending their hand in times of need. 

He teaches us that when you do the work, it is for life. Even unintentionally.

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