June 7, 2011
“Have I disturbed you Brothers? Have I frightened you? What have you got to be frightened of? Grown men like you…”
Is there any way Oranges and Sunshine could’ve avoided being manipulative? Certainly it depends on degrees and director Jim Loach only allows a couple, instead allowing the story to unfold without fanfare. The film is based on true events where 130,000 children were cruelly deported from Great Britain to Australia and Canada, and the relentless determination of one woman, Margaret Humphreys, to right the wrong, reunite the spurned children, and provoke the concerned governments into admitting complicity.
The deportation practice began in the 17th century when children were shipped from London to Virginia, the premier British outpost in America, to boost its population and the travesty finally ended in 1970. By the time Humphreys was done, the Child Migrants Trust had been created, a scheme that fast-tracked the reuniting of children that were taken from their families, and restored the children’s original identities.
When we first meet Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker in London, she’s removing a baby from an unfit mother’s care. She takes no joy in it. A mother of two herself, her sensitivity is transparent and pained. Then one night, a woman approaches her, asking her to help in locating her mother. At first, Humphreys is resistant, but once she opens the folder the woman thrust into her hands, the social worker she was transforms into a machine of relentless pursuit.
That pursuit takes her to Australia where she reunites a brother and sister and discovers hundreds more needing the same assistance. That brother, Jack (Hugo Weaving), is a damaged soul. He, along with hundreds of other boys, arrived with the promise that oranges and sunshine, in abundance, would be waiting. What they received instead was interminable abuse, both sexual and physical, and forced labour until their hands and backs were burned and bloody.
Enter the cocky, cynical Len (David Wenham), another deportee, whose suspicious attitude amps up Margaret’s own experience. It’s Len who pries her loose to dig deep and look at herself and try to empathise with their cruel experiences. He even convinces her to visit the remote Christian Brothers home in Bindoon in Western Australia that he and countless other boys were forced to build brick by brick under the threat of more beatings.
Watson, an expert at exhibiting pain without the maudlin, draws us in. Her piercing eyes and soft tones (at times she’s almost inaudible) are a perfect fit for Margaret. She never plays her as a superwoman, instead she reveals layers of fear, pain, and determination, as her nerves and candour evolve. She doesn’t add the bogus trimmings a more hysterical actress might consider. She’s very much a performer who plays it as it lays and while she’s obstinate and dependable, it’s not a role where she really flies. It’s an external character. It’s all happening around her, because of her.
The lines I opened this review with are uttered in a tense confrontation that’s worth the price of admission alone and its delivered in scene where she enters a building in abject fear (by this point she’s been threatened with abusive phone calls and menacing visitors) and as we watch, we can see the nerves of steel building as she comes to realise its not she who should be afraid. In a sensational performance full of subtlety, she continually surprises us as she surprises herself.
Loach, so aware of how easily this material could’ve grown to a hysterical pitch, keeps a tight rein, but that may be the film’s failing. The story itself is enormous and too cumbersome for a feature film. The screenplay, penned by Rona Munro (she’s come a long way from her chores on Doctor Who), maintains a healthy consistency yet it feels small. It’s a balancing act, attending to the three or four of the thousands of stories, so while what we have here is sensitively handled and visually realised in a modest fashion (it’s not a story that calls for stylised cinematography), we’re left wanting more of these stories.
Still, Oranges and Sunshine is never less than engaging and Loach is a smart, perceptive director, aware of what we need from this drama, and just as importantly, what we don’t need. He spares us the obvious flashbacks of screaming faces and bloodied limbs, instead focussing on the bruised souls that came from it. Consider the moments where Margaret and his own sister move in to hug the visibly shaken Jack. You can see the clumsy, hesitant pauses in his movements and his reluctance still at being touched. It’s where the far-reaching torment and pain of this tragedy finds its resonance.
Oranges and Sunshine
Director: Jim Loach
Screenplay: Rona Munro
Cinematography: Denson Baker
Editing: Dany Cooper
Score: Lisa Gerrard
Cast: Emily Watson, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, Richard Dillane.