One of the most shameful episodes in British social history has inspired a major feature film with a cast of leading actors.
Oranges and Sunshine portrays the story of the former Nottinghamshire social worker who, in the 1980s, discovered the scandal of 130,000 children in care deported to Australia and other Commonwealth countries.
Emily Watson, the Oscar-nominated British actor, plays Margaret Humphreys, who singlehandedly shamed authorities and children’s charities by exposing the British government’s secret programme of child migration. From the 19th century until 1970, children as young as three were falsely told that their parents were dead.
Promised a better life with "oranges and sunshine", they were shipped down under, where many encountered appalling abuse – physical or sexual – in church or other institutions, or as cheap labour. All suffered psychologically.
Although Humphreys exposed the brutal treatment, reuniting thousands of families and forcing the British and Australian prime ministers recently to issue official apologies, she was wary of a feature film being made about experiences still so painful, with survivors still coming to terms with lost childhoods.
The film traces her relationship with victims, the authorities and her own family as she battled to expose the injustice.
The filmmakers took eight years to convince her, and she eventually became an unofficial adviser to the production. After seeing a final cut last week, she was reassured that she made the right decision.
She told the Guardian: "It’s a very faithful interpretation. It is strong in its understatement."
Asked how the former child migrants would feel about watching the film, she said: "There’s no closure [for them] after 50 and 60 years of separation from their families and their country … I don’t know how they will view it."
The director is Jim Loach, 41, in his feature debut, having proved himself with TV dramas like Shameless. The sensitivity of the subject suggests a similar social conscience to his father, Ken Loach, one of Britain’s pre-eminent directors.
The script is by Rona Munro, the prizewinning Scottish writer, who also wrote Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird, another film about a mother losing her children.
Speaking to the Guardian, Jim Loach recalled Humphreys’ initial reservations: "She was worried it might be mawkish." Eventually, Munro’s script dispelled doubts.
Through Humphreys, the filmmakers met many of the victims – a term that jars with former child migrants. Loach was humbled by their stories: "They didn’t receive a proper education, weren’t fed properly … terrible sexual and other abuse. Sharing their experiences was incredibly difficult.
"But I was struck by their immense dignity and strength in an ongoing battle to come to terms with what happened."
One of them told the filmmakers of his love for a horse and his punishment for taking food when starving – to shoot and skin the horse. "The worst possible way to treat children short of killing them," Loach said.
Oranges and Sunshine, made on location in Nottingham, London and Adelaide – with David Wenham and Hugo Weaving, stars of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, as two former migrants – is based on Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles.
Her literary agent, Mark Lucas, who accompanied her to last week’s screening, described the film as "terribly harrowing and sensitively done".
Loach intends to arrange special screenings for the former child migrants before the film’s release next spring. It has been selected for this autumn’s Rome Film Festival.