Initially Johnny Flynn as young Nicky gets most of the action. On a visit to Czechoslovakia, as it then was, to help with the crisis in Prague of the overwhelming number Jewish refugees fleeing the German takeover of the Sudetenland, Nicky is shocked at the appalling conditions they are living in, often in tents on the streets. He is particularly moved by the plight of the children. Working against time and the threat of further Nazi invasion in Europe, he returns to London and sets about the mammoth task of raising money, battling with the authorities to organise visas and find foster homes for the children.
He is helped in this by his formidable mother Babi (Helena Bonham Carter). Nicky describes himself as “a European, a socialist, an agnostic,” and was raised as an English Christian, but his family, including his mother, were originally themselves Jewish immigrants, who had fled to England from persecution in Germany many years earlier – a fact which helps him in dealing with the Jewish parents’ understandable initial reluctance to be parted from their children. When Babi visits the immigration office to get the visa ball rolling, the officer, assuming she is applying for on her own behalf, asks her where she has come from and how. “From Hampsted on the number 24 bus”, she replies grandly.
Young Nicky’s story, which often has the pace and tension of a thriller, is intercut with scenes of his later and now elderly self in 1987, where he is played by Anthony Hopkins.
Far from remembering with satisfaction the children he saved from the gas chambers, the now ageing Winton is haunted by memory of the ninth and last trainload, who didn’t make it out of Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis invade Poland and arrive in Prague, at the last moment they brutally prevent that train from leaving the station. The children are returned to their parents and nearly all of them are later murdered in the death camps.
Turning out his study, Winton comes across his scrapbook from that time with photographs of the children and other memories. Wanting to use it to highlight the plight of other refugees, he finally captures the attention of the wife of Robert Maxwell – “that Czech fellow who owns a newspaper” as Winton describes him – and the subsequent story in the Daily Mirror is picked up by Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life programme.
Here Rantzen (Samantha Spiro) creates a remarkable piece of television history by confronting Winton with a studio audience made up entirely of the now adult men and women he saved and their children and sometimes grandchildren, all of whom owe their lives to him. That confrontation between the people, who without his intervention would either have been murdered in the gas chambers or would not even have existed at all and the man who saved them, is one of the many memorable moments in this powerful and very moving film.