June 11, 2011
3.5 out of 5 stars
Abandoned … Hugo Weaving as Jack, who is struggling to forget his horrific childhood.
One woman’s crusade shines a light on a dark chapter in Australia’s history, writes SANDRA HALL.
“Oranges and sunshine” was the promise made to a young English boy, who was shipped out to Australia in the 1950s as part of the British government’s child migrant scheme.
He would pick oranges for his breakfast and have a horse. Life would be one long adventure in paradise. Nobody mentioned the hours of farm labour that would fill his days, leaving little time for school and no chance to enjoy the sunshine or any other aspect of the imaginary Eden he’d been sold with such eloquence. And it would be years before anyone would expose the most blatant lie – he was not an orphan. Not only was his mother alive, she’d been told nothing of his forced migration to the other side of the world.
The story of these ”lost children of the Empire”, as the British called them, has been familiar to us for a while now. The brutal truths behind the scheme began to emerge 20 years ago, inspiring the TV drama series The Leaving of Liverpool. Two years ago, those wronged by the system received a belated apology from the prime minister in the Australian Parliament. Gordon Brown delivered another to the British a few months later. But the full story might never have come out if it were not for the detective work of Margaret Humphreys, an English social worker who followed a hunch after a chance meeting with one of the ”lost children”.
Oranges and Sunshine is the story of her investigations – a serpentine tale that moves between her home in Nottingham and Australia, where she tracked down hundreds of these so-called orphans, helping to reunite many of them with parents and siblings. Her character is played by Emily Watson, whose growing outrage powers the plot as it zigzags back and forth across the globe.
Real life is difficult to wrangle into a graceful narrative and Rona Munro’s script, an adaptation of Humphreys’s book Empty Cradles, is an ungainly animal, handicapped by its need to compress so many stories into one.
Margaret is a young social worker with a heavy case load and a busy domestic life as the mother of young children when she’s approached by an Australian woman, who tells her that she’s in Britain searching for the mother she hasn’t seen since being placed in a Nottingham orphanage as a young child. When she goes on to say that she was sent to Australia without her mother’s knowledge, Margaret doesn’t believe her. Yet she can’t forget the meeting. Ferreting among government records for more information, she discovers evidence persuasive enough to convince her bosses she should pursue the search full-time.
Directed by Jim Loach – son of Ken Loach, one of the grand old men of British social realism – the film is an Australian-British co-production, which Emile Sherman (The King’s Speech) helped put together. Hugo Weaving and David Wenham head the supporting cast as Jack and Len, men who’ve dealt with their horrendous childhood experiences in very different ways. Jack is a gruff and diffident introvert who’s trying, unsuccessfully, to put it all out of his mind, while Len is doing the opposite. Fortified by the deadpan sarcasm that Wenham dispenses when called upon to play characters who like to be in control, he’s prickly and unco-operative when Margaret first comes across him. If his own private detectives have failed to find his mother, he has no faith in her efforts. Nonetheless, she perseveres, matching his prickliness with her own and gradually they become wary allies.
It’s a tricky role for Watson. Beneath Margaret’s prim suits and unwavering dedication to the job is a gathering despair. The more she finds out about the beatings and the sexual assaults inflicted on the children, the closer she comes to cracking. Finally, she’s diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – which sounds plausible enough, especially as she’s also receiving death threats.
Yet her suffering seems histrionic rather than heartfelt. It’s not Watson’s fault. It’s the retrospective nature of the story that undermines it. Instead of witnessing the horrors at its core, we’re told about them. Consequently, Loach’s attempts to pump up the prevailing intensity seem strained and contrived.
Typical is the climactic scene that takes Len and Margaret to Bindoon, the Christian Brothers’ institution where some of the worst abuse took place. The torments Len endured in this sandstone building are telegraphed so comprehensively en route that there’s no energy left for the big moment.
Nonetheless, it’s still a film worth seeing. If ever a story needed telling, it’s this one. Humphreys’s efforts in exposing the iniquities of the system make her a hero for, as Loach makes clear, the bureaucratic heartlessness she uncovered was as evil as the abuse itself.
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE
Directed by Jim Loach
Rated M, 104 minutes