An overly emotional approach obscures a good true story in “The Power of Good — Nicholas Winton.” To be sure, the tale of a British businessman and his almost single-handed deliverance of Czech and Slovak children from certain death in Nazi camps and into the arms of British families on the eve of World War II is noteworthy.And it’s made all the more incredible by Winton’s anonymity and the fact he’s still alive. Yet Slovak helmer Matej Minac has opted for an amped-up “This Is Your Life”-type pitch, which dissipates the impact. Pic was closing night event at the Palm Springs fest and will continue to be in great demand on the circuit, but at a slight but still somehow padded 64 minutes seems more suited to the tube than the theatrical rollout Menemsha has planned Stateside. Ancillary success is a given.
Vague narrative shape comes courtesy of Canadian journo Joe Schlesinger, who along with Czech-born and British-based helmer Karel Reisz are two of the more prominent people who owe their lives to the man dubbed “Britain’s own Schindler.”
As a 29-year-old stockbroker in Europe on the eve of WWII, Winton saw the need to try to divert Jewish children slated for deportation with their parents. He mounted a letter-writing campaign and was able to place 669 kids on trains and in homes in Britain before hostilities started. Pic points out that none of the parents of any of those kids is known to have survived the war.
Today, there are some 5,000 descendants of those now-grown children, and many of them appear alongside their elders in filmed tributes. Others proclaiming their admiration include famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Czech president Vaclav Havel. Winton himself apparently thought so little of the long-term effects of his bureaucratic wizardry that he never bothered to tell anyone of the deed. It wasn’t until 1988 that the story came to light, after Mrs. Winton found a trunk with his files in the attic. (“There are a great many things husbands don’t tell their wives,” he sniffs.)
This leads to pic’s singularly emblematic sequence, as Winton is apparently surprised in the audience of a late 1980s British TV show by a presenter who announces that some of the saved children are seated around him — and the entire audience rises to its feet.
Tech credits are slick to a fault, with visual strategy of fading in and out of color-coded tinting (sepia for the good guys, blue for the bad guys) providing more distraction than enlightenment. There’s a generous helping of previously unseen archival footage, but any vestiges of objectivity go out the window when Minac slaps Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on the soundtrack.
Now in his early 90s, yet apparently as active as ever, Winton — who has moved on to helping homeless children in Rio de Janeiro — put in an appearance after at least one Karlovy Vary fest screening, and appeared every bit as embarrassed about all the attention as he does in the film. Title phrase is lifted from a letter written by Winton in 1939, detailing the difference between “passive goodness and active goodness.”