Despite high-caliber movie actors Emily Watson and Hugo Weaving, and screenwriter Rona Munro (“Ladybird, Ladybird”), “Sunshine” is stretched thin for the big screen. The decidedly art-house film is better suited for television, and should do well in ancillary markets.
The film is based on the book “Empty Cradles” by British social worker Margaret Humphreys, which exposed the widespread practice of child deportation in 1986. Margaret (Watson) is approached by an Australian who is desperately searching for her true identity. Though Margaret initially disbelieves that the woman left England alone on a boat at the age of 4, after being told her mother had died – the story seems ludicrous – Margaret is intrigued.
The woman sought information for years, to no avail, but in a five-minute sequence Margaret finds out that the woman’s mother is still alive and that something sinister is underfoot. This bureaucratic efficiency with which Loach propels story development marks the entire film, undermining the very drama at its core.
Once Margaret starts meeting more “orphans” in Australia, truly horrifying facts come to light. Many of the children had been separated from parents only temporarily deemed unfit to care for them. The children were then told their parents died; the parents that the children had been adopted by better families. Shipped to the land of “oranges and sunshine,” there the children were used as illegal labor and taken to institutions, like those run by the Christian Brothers, and often subjected to unthinkable physical and sexual abuse.
The social worker and her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) have since dedicated their lives to reuniting families, tirelessly petitioning both the Australian and U.K. governments for an official apology, which came only in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
“Oranges and Sunshine” is Margaret’s story, though she and the few other central characters are all depicted in broad strokes.
Margaret is so determined and good that Watson has little to do with her. And the Australian “orphans” (now adults) are treated with a self-righteousness that is grating. Even Len (David Wenham), the film’s only survivor who adamantly refuses to be pitied, is condescended to. “I don’t know about the man sitting in front of me,” Margaret tells him when he likens confessing one’s pain to whining, “but I’m sure I’d like to speak to the boy inside.” Weaving is brilliant in the nearly impossible role as the emotionally displaced Jack.