June 8, 2011
In the powerfully moving ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, actor Hugo Weaving helps pull back the curtain on one of the greatest instances of social injustice in our Australian history.
In the harrowing but ultimately uplifting Oranges and Sunshine, debut feature filmmaker Jim Loach details one of the greatest governmental abuses in the history of Australian and British relations. In the post-war era, the British government engaged in the now unfathomable practice of “child migration”, whereby huge groups of children from UK orphanages and children’s homes were literally shipped overseas. One of the greatest “depositories” was Australia. Vulnerable and alone, these innocent children – many of whom were told that their often impoverished parents (deemed incompetent by the government) were dead, when they were, in fact, very much alive – suffered an act of governmental cruelty akin to the sustained suffering impacted upon Australia’s indigenous Stolen Generation.
The woman largely responsible for uncovering this scandal was Margaret Humphreys, portrayed in Loach’s film by Emily Watson. Humphreys was a Nottingham social worker whose courageous and continued investigation eventually had the Australian and British governments quivering with fear over how the public would react when presented with the long buried facts about the practice of child migration. Initially working alone, Humphreys is nothing short of an underdog hero – she put her life and family at risk in the service of those desperately seeking to reconnect with their stolen identities.
Starring alongside Watson is local performer Hugo Weaving, who beautifully essays the movingly closed-off character of Jack, who becomes an important ally to Margaret Humphreys while painfully dealing with his own sense of loss and disconnection as a result of being shipped out to Australia from England as a child. Weaving felt an instant kinship with Jack, as the role had a decidedly personal element for the actor. “My mum was actually sent as a four-year-old girl from Liverpool to Canada during WW2,” he reveals. “They thought that England was going to be invaded, and her father thought that he was on a Nazi blacklist. He was worried about his family, so he sent the children to Canada. She ended up in a children’s home in Brooklyn, of all places. My mum is an extraordinary person in so many ways; she’s very youthful, socially able, dynamic and loving, but there’s something in her that has forever changed after being sent away from her parents, even though she was eventually reunited with them. It’s not the same story as the children in Oranges and Sunshine, but fundamentally, it’s the same. She said that it made her really independent. I asked her, ‘How do you mean independent? Do you mean alone?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes.’
“To emotionally depend on yourself and no one else can cause someone to become so shut down that they are unable to function in society,” Weaving continues. “We all have to protect ourselves, but as a child at that age, they will protect themselves in such a way that they may never be able to free themselves again.”
For Oranges and Sunshine‘s Jack, Weaving works from the ground up, practically reinventing himself physically, and conveying through subtle body language and speech modulations the irrevocable damage that has been wrought on this imposing, but internally broken, man. It’s another stunning performance from this versatile actor, and sits alongside his best work in Little Fish, The Interview, Proof and Last Ride. Though a composite character pulled together from various figures in Margaret Humphreys’ book, Weaving based much of his research on a real life victim of the child migration scheme.
“I couldn’t possibly do him justice though, because he’s just a physically extraordinary man,” Weaving says of the enigmatically unnamed fellow who provided his character’s template. “I’m tall, but he’s taller than me. He has this wonderful shock of long white hair and a huge beard. He looked like Gandalf! He has an amazing calm and strength to him. His story is remarkable. His marriage broke down, and he left his own family, and they didn’t know what had happened to him. Many years later, they saw him on television talking to Margaret Humphreys. His family didn’t know his story. They hadn’t seen him for years, so they contacted him and brought him back into the fold. It took him his whole life to re-establish himself. He was invaluable to me. It’s hard to talk about in a technical way. It’s that intangible quality; when I meet someone, I know that they’re the right template for a character. They’re giving me something very human, which is hard to put into words.”
The father of two children, the film’s themes and characters had a particular resonance for Weaving. “When my son was being born, I suddenly realised something incredibly profound about the nature of life,” he offers candidly. “It was almost instant. I suddenly realised something about myself and about us, and all the boundaries blew away. I got some kind of understanding about the continuum of life, and what it is to be a parent and what it is to be a child. We’re all children always until we die. This material – which is about the child in us, and how that is either nurtured or not, and then how a child who has been abandoned or abused learns to deal with their identity and who they are – is particularly powerful. It’s about the nature of upbringing and the nature of learning, and the nature of society. It’s big stuff.”
Oranges and Sunshine is released on June 9. This is an excerpt from our feature story on the June issue of FILMINK. To find out more from Weaving, as well as director Jim Loach, pick up the current issue on sale now.