June 9, 2011
Oranges and Sunshine recounts the true story of a Nottingham social worker who has dedicated her life to reuniting the thousands of child migrants sent from the UK to Australia between the 1940s and 60s with the parents and families they were told did not exist.
Based on her best-selling book Empty Cradles, Oranges and Sunshine follows Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson) as she battles to bring emotional closure and justice to those who suffered at the hands of those institutions (governments, Christian Brothers, “charitable organisations”) charged with their care. Ironically, Jim Loach, who makes his big-screen debut with Oranges and Sunshine (the title refers to promises of paradise made to the children) went in the opposite direction to his indefatigable heroine, fighting like hell to loosen the ties with his famous father, the filmmaker Ken.
Indeed, Loach junior and his sister once made a blood oath that they would not follow in the footsteps of Loach senior, concerned they’d forever be compared with the man whose name is the very byword for politically committed cinematic realism.
Loach’s parents were also against young Jim making a career in film, a profession that almost invariably brings financial hardship and artistic frustration.
Not only did Loach become a director, he’s made a very Ken Loach-like first film, a rigorous, unsentimental, enraging account of one woman’s struggle to expose the suffering of the child migrants, who were lied to, lived in Dickensian conditions and forced into what amounted to indentured servitude. “I guess it’s the ultimate rebellion, doing the opposite of what you’re told by your parents,” laughs Loach as we sit down for a chat ahead of the Australian release of Oranges and Sunshine, which has been garnering positive reviews since its unveiling at the Rome Film Festival last year.
“I originally wanted to be a journalist,” says the 41-year-old philosophy graduate.
“But eventually the desire to tell stories using film got the better of me. It took a while but I’m now reconciled with doing what my dad did.”
However, it was not the desire to follow his journey from working on the small to the big screen but the story of Margaret Humphreys and her decades-long battle to right the wrongs of successive British and Australian governments and have them acknowledge their failure to protect child migrants.
“Only five minutes after meeting Margaret for the first time in 2002 I knew this is the film that I wanted to make. I remember ringing a friend on the train from Nottingham back to London and telling him I have to tell Margaret’s amazing story,” remembers Loach.
Working with his father’s production company and writer Rona Munro, who had scripted Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird, Loach the younger gave a dramatic shape to Humphreys’ history, amalgamating many heartbreaking stories into a few compelling characters, including those played by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
While the greatest number of those child migrants were transported to WA, the film was not shot here because Loach and his team were not granted access to the Christian Brothers famously ornate establishment in Bindoon – now a college run by the Catholic Church – where many of the worst abuses took place (the production was eventually divided between the UK and South Australia).
“We made an approach to film in Bindoon but it didn’t get very far. I would have loved to have filmed there because it is an amazing place, although it might have been disturbing for the children currently studying there to see the place’s awful history recreated,” explains Loach.
However, Loach and Munro did go on a surreptitious visit to Bindoon, hopping over the fence and guided by a man who had been there as a boy. “It was totally overwhelming,” Loach told The Observer.
“The man was very clear about the bits he had helped to build with his bare hands and the appalling conditions in which they lived. It was like a prison camp.
“The thing that struck me was how utterly unsuitable was the place for children, how it was built entirely for the monster ego of the adults.”
An outsized ego of the father figure, however, was not something Loach had to contend with while making Oranges and Sunshine, with Ken offering valuable suggestions during editing, resulting in 10 minutes being trimmed from the final cut, but not imposing his vision on that of his son.
Father and son are in constant communication.
“He’s a big texter; he’s a text pest,” laughs Loach. Nevertheless he’s clearly comfortable working in the giant shadow cast by the director of such classics as Raining Stones, Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. “I love and respect my father but it was relief to shoot in Australia, to be away from preconceptions, opinions and comparisons.”
Oranges and Sunshine opens today.