Reviewed by John Nathan
It is an odd sensation being able to insert oneself into the timeline of a life story on the big screen. In as many months I have reviewed two biopics of people I have met and of whom I have very particular memories. The first was Leonard Bernstein. I was in my 20s and after being introduced to the man whose music filled the house I was raised in I extended a diffident hand while mumbling something suitably deferential. But his hand swerved my formality and pinched me on the cheek with enough force for me to still feel it in my 50s. It was tiny expression of the expansive instinctive bravura of the man t was superbly captured by Bradley Cooper.
And now it is the turn of Sir Nicholas Winton to be writ large on screen. I met him at his comfortable, modern Maidenhead house in the 1990s for an interview about how he miraculously saved 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. And immediately recognisable in TV director James Hawes’s breakthrough movie a quality that has has stayed with since – Winton’s modesty.
From the introspection of Hopkins’s bespectacled retiree shuffling through papers in his office, to the frantic yet calm determination of his younger self (played by Johnny Flynn) to get displaced, often dying Jewish children from Prague to London; the question that hovers throughout this engrossing character study is, “why?”
Why is it that someone risks his comfortable life as a stockbroker by volunteering for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), a charity that exists to help those who opposed Nazism escape Hitler? It is a question Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake’s mostly excellent script touches on but leaves frustratingly hanging when news that Germany is to be given a chunk of the Czechoslovakia in the hope of avoiding war.
Winton has resolved to go out there to deploy his legendary administrative skills in the service of the BCRC. “I have to do it,” he explains to his mother, played by a stylish and indomitable Helena Bonham Carter. As she fixes him with knowing look in their Hampstead drawing room, she knows why he has to go. But we don’t.
The resolve becomes yet more resolute when he joins Romola Garai’s volunteer in Prague. What is her motivation, he asks, as they hurry through streams of the displaced who are only just ahead of the advancing Germans. But here too the answer – though stirring – has a whiff of cop-out about it. “The people are in trouble,” she says with heroic simplicity. This a movie that only has time to ask the question, not answer it with any complexity.
Moments later in a camp of Jewish refugees being sprinkled with snow children huddle around fires where some are dying of disease and cold, the answer to “Why?” becomes momentarily irrelevant. Trust a rabbi in Prague to ask it straight before giving Winton his list of Jewish children in desperate need of rescue. Before his parents migrated at the beginning of the century his grandparents were Jewish, Winton explains self-effacingly. Though as he was baptised “I’m not sure what you would call me,” he says. “I would call you Jewish,” says the rabbi.
The film cleverly toggles between the panic of wartime Europe and placid home counties life in 1987. Here Winton still does his bit for charity emptying collection boxes of small change onto his kitchen table. Hopkins delicately underplays a man haunted by his failure. ‘There’s always more to do,’ he tells the older version of one of his collaborators (played by Jonathan Pryce).
A cathartic kind of pride is only allowed during the recreation of the That’s Life episodes in which Esther Rantzen (an unrecognisable Samantha Spiro) ambushes Winton on live TV with the adult versions of hundreds of children he saved. It is a moment which, like this film, is well deserved.