Whilst it may have become the 2020 hotspot for mid-pandemic holidays, with instagramable scenery and perfect pub pints, the Lake District has a far more interesting and complex history than just sheep farming and Wordsworth. And this BAFTA nominated film is telling one story: that of the 300 children rescued from Auschwitz and Belsen, who were brought to Windermere.
And fasten your seatbelts folks, it’s about to get emotional. Seriously, we’ll be impressed (and slightly concerned) if you get through this one without shedding a tear. Just after the end of the Second World War, the British government agreed to take 732 concentration camp survivors as refugees, and around 300 of those, aged from just two or three up to late teens, were sent to The Lakes for four months, to live in former factory worker’s barracks whilst they settled into life in the UK. They’re cared for by a rabbi, two guardians and an art teacher, hoping to transform these starving, traumatised kids into healthy, ‘normal’ citizens.
That’s not an easy task, though – seeing the huts they are to sleep in, they instantly assume it’s bad news, and when they’re asked to create art they paint the dead bodies they saw whilst in the camps. They gobble food down the second it is put on their plates, not convinced that eating will be a regular occurrence, and they are startled by their PE teacher’s shouting. All of this is heart-breaking and unnerving, but even more so when it is paired by the group’s constant search for answers on the location and wellbeing of their family members that they haven’t seen since being separated at the camps.
There’s no doubt about it – this is a difficult watch. But it’s also a beautiful one, doused in period elements which make it oddly charming, especially with the dialogue’s spontaneous flecks of black humour. And it’s made even more enchanting when these kids, despite it all, actually do recover – they form familial bonds, and start speaking English, kicking footballs about and preparing for a happy future.
The Independent’s Sean O’Grady will support wholeheartedly The Windermere Children getting a BAFTA nomination, as he says it’s a film which “exercises such raw emotional power that it’s impossible to get through it without crying.” The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman says the most emotional moment by far is when “the teenage Polish actors playing Holocaust survivors brought to Britain after the war are suddenly replaced by the survivors themselves – real people, still alive, talking about their happy and fulfilled lives.” She says “It seems more than just a familiar device to show that the film is based on actual people and true events. This has been a story about survival and recovery from unimaginable trauma, so seeing these men smiling, thriving, provides an unexpectedly optimistic conclusion.”
In The Telegraph, Anita Singh says “It would have been easy for The Windermere Children to tip over into sentimentality,” but writer Simon Block and director Michael Samuels instead “gave us a sad and beautiful film.”
First shown January 2020. You can watch the trailer here: