The whole area of family, rites of passage and identity is what I’m most interested in dramatically," says Jim Loach, and he’s not kidding.
His first feature film – Oranges and Sunshine, out next month – is a rending tale of family trauma on both an intimate and a grandly international scale. Making it was also a rite of passage for the 41-year-old Londoner, who acknowledges the long shadow cast by his film-maker father, Ken Loach.
If the story weren’t true, you might not believe it. Up until the Seventies, around 100,000 mostly illegitimate British children were taken from orphanages, told their parents were dead, sometimes renamed, and plunged into a life of hardship and abuse – rather than the promised "oranges and sunshine" – in Australia and other Commonwealth countries.
Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson) stumbled on and then pursued the scandal in the Eighties. She took on two governments and the Catholic Church in Australia to recover as many lost identities as possible and win an apology for the transportees, but risked her own health and family stability in the process.
Loach, a television director with credits on Holby City, Shameless, Bad Girls and Casualty, read Humphreys’s book about her experiences, Empty Cradles, "and found her story compelling, inspiring, uplifting – one woman against the odds".
It took repeated visits to Hodge’s tiny Nottingham office from the set of Shameless to convince her that his intentions were honourable.
"I didn’t want to make a campaigning film, or anything sentimental," he says. "For me it was about identity, about who we are."
The gestation of the film was slow. "I think I walked around it for a while," says Loach. "and the [Loach] name is a burden. But it got to a point where my dad said, you’ve just got to make it."
Writer Rona Munro – who scripted Ladybird, Ladybird for Ken Loach, and whom Jim has known since he was a philosophy student at University College London – had numerous "sparky" meetings with Humphreys.
"They are both strong women," says Loach. "I’m choosing my words carefully there. The relationship was combative but fantastic."
There were also research trips to Perth to interview now-adult transportees. The men, in particular, were "often the reverse of the person we expected to meet. If you offered these guys sympathy, they’d run a mile. They were emphatically not victims, but survivors, and to us they were heroic figures."
Humphreys’s experience is rendered faithfully on screen – the helter-skelter way she is drawn into the plight of the transported children, the official obfuscation and the terrifying threats she faces when she starts to investigate the organised abuse of boys forced to build the notorious Catholic seminary at Bindoon.
Loach says Emily Watson was the top of his wish list to play Humphreys: "She has the right combination of vulnerability and strength, and can express compassion without sentiment."
The actress had "a very emotional reaction to the script" having just given birth to her second child. Loach himself has two young children with his partner, Clare, a script editor, whom he met at university. "Inevitably, as a parent, you imagine your child in that situation and see it through their eyes," he says.
The stories of the transportees, meanwhile, are composites. Hugo Weaving’s Jack is Margaret’s quietly strong protector but unmanned by the thought that his unknown mother might not have loved him. David Wenham’s Len, meanwhile, is a defiantly unsympathetic Ocker – boorish, hostile, sexist – who represents the boys who were used as barefoot slave labour at Bindoon.
Loach was secretly driven out to this hideous, quasi-Gothic pile by two former inmates. "One of them was banging the walls, saying ‘my blood is in these stones’," he says. "We asked [the Catholic Church] if we could film there – they said no."
He deliberately left the motives of the British and Australian governments out of the film, preferring to concentrate on the victims’ rage and bafflement. If he’d put the whole truth in, it might have looked melodramatic.
"Margaret found a document that showed that the cost of a one-way ticket to Australia was less than the cost of keeping a child in care in the UK," he says. "Someone had actually worked that out."
Australia, meanwhile, pursued a blatantly racist immigration policy until 1973, to prevent the "dilution" of Caucasian blood through miscegenation. "Margaret found another document saying they were looking for ‘good white stock’," says Loach.
No wonder the culpable ignored the affair for so long, hoping it would go away. But events seemed to catch up with Loach’s film as he was making it.
"A week before we began shooting in Nottingham, the Australian government apologised to the former child migrants," says Loach. "Then, just before we started shooting in Australia, Gordon Brown‘s government apologised.
"It was a huge moment for the former migrants. The one thing they really wanted was an acknowledgment from the British government that this happened to them and it was wrong. The worth of that to someone whose identity has been denied is incalculable."
Jim is one of five children born to Ken Loach and dancer wife Lesley, who raised their family in London and Bath (one brother, Nicholas, died aged six in a road accident).
"It was a very normal, loving upbringing, and we were fortunate in that we were always encouraged to read the newspapers and engage with the world," Jim says.
At the age of six or seven, he and his sister Emma realised that their dad was the same "Ken Loach" they occasionally heard on the radio, and later swore a "blood oath" not to follow him into film. Emma now makes documentaries, while their other two siblings are in law and music.
Jim planned initially to be a journalist, but after graduating became first a runner on commercials, then a researcher for the BBC, then a director, for Granada‘s World in Action.
Somewhere, Jim still has the envelope on which his dad jotted some directing tips for him.
He still wrestled with the idea of becoming a film-maker for a long time. "It’s probably no accident that I went to Australia – about as far away as you can go – to make my first film," he says ruefully. "But I kind of made this film for my mum. My main thought while I was shooting was, would my mum understand this? Would she find it interesting and exciting? What would she take from it?"
For the future, Loach says he has to make amends to his own partner and children, after being obsessively wrapped up in Oranges and Sunshine for so long. But he is already working on a new film script with Munro, nominally about asylum seekers but actually about "family, rites of passage and identity" again. He knows he will constantly be compared to his father but is resigned to it.
"I’m very proud of my parents, and I just have to let other people think what they think," he says. "It’s not for me to control. And I don’t try to any more."
Oranges and Sunshine is released on April 1