‘One Life’ Ending Explained & Movie Summary: What Happens To Nicky?

Anthony Hopkins doesn’t cry much while playing British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton in James Hawes’ One Life, but his moving performance is enough to break your heart and make you sob like a baby by the end. The film happens to be a biographical drama based on Sir Nicholas Winton’s incredibly selfless work in saving over 600 Jewish refugee children during the Second World War. Hopkins is, unsurprisingly, brilliant in the title role, and so is Johnny Flynn, who plays the younger version of the character. Considering the grave subject matter, the film often feels sentimental, but it never reaches the point of being sappy. The fairly straightforward story is told in a back-and-forth style, intercutting between the year 1987, which shows the older version of Sir Winton reminiscing about the time when he went all out to save the children, and the years 1938–39, where we get to see the younger Winton and his colleagues in action. Even though One Life doesn’t leave anything ambiguous, certain bits of it might leave some of you a bit confused. And you might just wonder whether the final scene of the movie has any particular significance or not. In this article, I’m hoping to provide you with the answers.

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Spoilers Ahead


Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Movie?

The main story of One Life might be set way back in 1939, but it does hold major relevance even in the world of the present day as well. From Syria to Palestine, the refugee crisis is still a severe issue, and the evil has been replaced by fascism, capitalism, and, worst of all, organized terrorism. I’m sure we do have many people like Sir Nicholas Winton who’re trying their best to help out people in any way they can, but we probably need a lot more. To think that the man did everything while he could have just lived a safe life with a cushy job is both hard to believe and infinitely inspiring!

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Who Was Nicholas Winton, And What Did He Want To Do?

In 1938, Nicholas “Nicky” Winton was a stock market employee in Maidenhead, England. But he was not particularly satisfied with what he was doing and clearly felt the need to do something for people. It was a troubling time for Europe, as the Second World War was knocking on everybody’s doors. Hitler had established himself as a terrifying tyrant, especially for Jewish people who were trying their best to save themselves from the wrath of the Führer. 

Nicky joined the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC) in Prague, where he met BCRC head Doreen and fellow workers Trevor and Hannah. His friend Martin Blake had already worked for the BCRC before, and it was very evident that Martin had highly recommended Nicky to the BCRC. After finding out that many Jewish children were living in extremely dire conditions in many concentration camps all over Prague, Nicky proposed to move all those children to foster homes in England before Hitler took over Czechoslovakia, which was bound to happen anytime soon. Doreen thought it was an impractical idea, no matter how novel it sounded, but she was soon convinced by Nicky’s enthusiasm and determination. Trevor and Hannah were also very much on board, and the four of them soon started making these elaborate lists of the children who would soon be transferred to the United Kingdom.

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What Did Nicky Do To Achieve His Goal?

Bureaucracy and apathy are always the primary obstacles in doing any good for the common people in this world, and for Nicholas Winton, it was no different. His wish to save all the unfortunate Jewish children was as selfless as could be, but it didn’t happen quite so easily—not that Nicky, his ever-so-encouraging mother Babette, or anyone associated with the cause expected it to. The biggest challenge they faced was getting that many foster families for the kids, getting individual visas ready for each and every child, and, most essentially, the funding for all of them. While Nicky and his friends tirelessly keep documenting the children as fast as possible in Prague, Babette does her bit in London by getting all the political and financial help. I should mention here that Helena Bonham Carter is excellent in this role.

Nicky soon had to return to England in order to get things ready for the children over there, while the rest of BCRC kept doing their good work in Prague. He was also instructed to come back to work by his employer, but at this point, saving the children clearly mattered more to him than his own job. After crossing many hurdles, Nicky was finally able to start the process of transferring the children in small batches. The transfer happened by trains, and Nicky himself went to receive each batch of children at the Liverpool station. While things were finally in motion, the possibility of the Germans taking over Czechoslovakia was hovering over Nicky and Co.

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Did Nicky Manage To Save All The Children?

The Nicky we see at the very beginning of One Life is actually the one Hopkins plays. He seems like a sweet old man, but something’s clearly bothering him. As Nicky keeps going through his old scrapbook and the scenes cut back to the past, we slowly start to realize the fact that there must be something that bothers the old man that we see. 

The movie also makes it pretty clear that Nicky formed personal attachments to some of these children, which was quite obvious. The process of transferring children faced a major hiccup when Nicky failed to come up with proper legal documents for three of the kids, including a little girl named Vera, with whom he formed a personal bond. However, Trevor came to the rescue by taking the risk of forging the documents and successfully taking those children to safety.

But soon after that, proving everyone’s fear right, the Germans attacked and took control of the streets of Prague- essentially meaning the remaining children were pretty much doomed. As they were trying to catch the ninth train to England, the Gestapo took them away and detained Hannah, who was supposed to take them. We never got to know the fate of those unfortunate children, but it couldn’t be any good, given the circumstances.


What Happens To Nicky?

The greatest achievement of James Hawes’ movie is managing to tell a deeply affecting true story about an ordinary person doing extraordinary things without making it preachy. The movie does take a lot of cinematic liberties and moves away from the actual story, though, but that cannot undermine the fact that Nicholas Winton was indeed a gem of a person. And so were Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick, who, despite featuring in the narrative, the main focus remained on Winton and his heroics. Adapting a story as important as this one is always a challenge, and while the movie might offend some people for very valid reasons, we should also acknowledge the fact that it can at least stir debates, start conservation, and make people take an interest in historical events like the Kindertransport.

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I know I am only supposed to talk about what happened in the movie, but I’ve got to tell you here that, with a little digging, I found out about a controversy regarding the movie initially not uttering the “Jew” word. Apparently, the makers decided to change the decision, and the final version that we see goes on to have a scene of Nicky explaining why he wants to save the Jewish children to a Czech rabbi early on in the movie. Also, Trevor is literally asked by a Gestapo regarding the British government’s plan for all the “Jew” children. That scene actually seems kind of forced and sticks out like a sore thumb, to be honest.

Coming back to the final half-hour of One Life now, we see old Nicky is trying to make space inside his house by giving away his old files and scrapbook to someone to whom those have some relevance. Through Martin (played by a sublime Jonathan Price, and we couldn’t be happier to see him sharing the screen with Hopkins after The Two Popes), Nicky meets a woman named Elizabeth, who seems very interested in the old photos and documents. Although she meets Nicky and gets to know his heartbreaking story of not being able to save the last batch of children, she admits she didn’t expect it to be so overwhelming, and the woman is moved beyond her imagination. With Nicky’s permission, Elizabeth shows everything she got from him to her husband Robert, who happens to be one of the who’s who behind the popular BBC TV program That’s Life.

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When Nicky gets the request to be featured in the program, his wife Grete is initially skeptical because the nature of the television program is rather commercial and might not do justice to the sensitivity of this story. But Nicky goes ahead because he believes more people should know about the children, and he turns out to be very right. The biggest surprise for Nicky, however, comes in the form of meeting the adult Vera in the same show, and he couldn’t be more excited to see her after all these years. In the only scene of One Life where Antony Hopkins finally cries like crazy, we finally realize what it meant for Nicky after all—literally everything.

Nicky soon starts receiving requests from so many other children for a meeting, as well as from journalists who now want to cover his story. We do get to see a journalist who was earlier approached by Nicky to tell the story and refused to do so, now coming back and being deservingly rejected by the old man. He does go to That’s Life one more time, though, this time to meet two more people whom he saved back then. But the BBC program had the sweetest surprise in store for old Nicholas Winton. In what I consider the raison d’etre of the entire movie, the entire studio audience stands up in order to thank Nicky for saving their lives. Yes, they all turn out to be children he once saved. 

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During One Life‘s ending, we see Nicky at a party at his home, where Vera and some of the other “Nicky’s children” (that’s what the group started to call themselves) are visiting. It was very touching to see Nicky taking Vera to show her his swimming pool, which is a nod to their first conversation, where they bonded over their mutual likeness for swimming. The last image of One Life shows little kids gleefully running around Nicky’s house, all happy and carefree, taking a plunge in his pool as Nicky and Vera are reminiscing about the old days. It’s actually quite bold of a World War II movie to finish things off with such a wholesome and happy image. But for “One Life,” it also makes sense because the last scene only establishes what an incredible thing Nicky has managed to pull off. If it were not for him, Vera or none of these people, let alone their children, would have been here. One Life is a testament to what kindness and willpower can do, no matter how big or small you are, and for that, the movie should be lauded by all of us.

Before I finish, let me just put some things into perspective: Sir Anthony Hopkins, at eighty-six years of age, is doing film after film and managing to make an impact with everything, mostly. His age, however, is not on his side, and the man might not be with us in the near future. And despite the fact that his career is larger and far more illustrious than most of his contemporaries, it would be a huge loss for cinema because watching Hopkins on screen is still a fascinating experience. That man can literally sit and do nothing, and you’d still be glued to the screen, thanks to his infectious charm. And every time I see Hopkins crying on screen, it becomes extremely hard for me not to do the same—such is the power of the actor.

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Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

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