Nicholas Winton became something of an accidental humanitarian during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, abandoning his skiing plans during the winter of 1938 in order to help a friend in aiding Jewish refugees, and refusing to stop when his penny-pinching boss demanded that he return to England. Latter dubbed the “British Schindler,” Winton would almost singlehandedly save a staggering 669 Jewish children from almost-certain death, organizing their adoption by and transportation to families abroad, and would have saved at least another 250 had the start of the war not shut the borders for good.
This is a powerful chapter in our human history, but in Nicky’s Family it’s made melodramatic and dull through Matej Minac’s indulgence of hokey reenactments and sound-augmented archival footage; the now-elderly benefactors of Winton’s efforts reenacting their train ride to freedom is a particularly fruitless diversion. At least when Werner Herzog had Dieter Dengler revisit his wartime prison in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the choice was psychologically revealing, if morally debatable; in contrast, Nicky’s Family has little to offer outside of tired and poorly staged scenarios of children in peril that fail to communicate even a fraction of the horrors experienced by their real-life counterparts.
Spoken accounts of the era—such as a young girl who gives away her best shoes to a barefoot stranger, or the rabbi who objects to Winton’s placing of Jewish children in Christian households—are illuminating and frequently moving windows into the spectrum of humanity revealed by the descent into war. But the power of these moments is dispelled by the crowd-pleasing tosh that pads the doc. The choice to draw out a key moment with slow motion is a shameless attempt at milking an otherwise moving spectacle, but where the film most squanders its substantial potential is in neglecting to inquire, even in passing, into the reasons for Winton’s long-standing anonymity. It wasn’t until the stash of paperwork from his wartime efforts was accidentally discovered in the late 1980s that the world came to know of his deeds, and instead of taking the opportunity to seriously examine the profound humanity and humility in this series of events, we’re instead left with what amounts to little more than a drawn-out round of applause.