The West Australian
June 14, 2011
Oranges and Sunshine (M) 4 stars
Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
Director Jim Loach
You’ll like this if you liked The Devil’s Playground, Ladybird Ladybird, My Name Is Joe, Erin Brokovich, The Magdalene Sisters.
Isolation and good fortune have kept West Australians at arm’s length from the horrors of the 20th century, with war and terror a distant echo rather than an all-encompassing nightmare.
Oranges and Sunshine, a British-made movie about the cruelty endured by postwar child migrants to our country, is a shocking reminder that while many of us did enjoy the promise of the movie’s title, thousands of unfortunates endured Dickensian deprivation and cruelty right under our noses.
This very assured debut feature of Jim Loach (son of the great British social realist Ken Loach) does not reveal anything we haven’t learnt from books and documentaries and apologies on behalf of British and Australian governments and the Catholic Church.
However, Oranges and Sunshine is the first feature to take us into the heart of darkness, by which I mean both the abuses perpetuated by the Christian Brothers and others charged with caring for the youngsters and the dissembling of institutions that delayed the truth from coming out.
I would contend the lies told to the children sent to Australia and other Commonwealth countries – many were told their parents were dead – is a far greater abuse than that by their God-fearing overlords. It ripped out part of their souls and many never recovered.
Loach tells the story through the eyes of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), who is approached by an Australian woman named Charlotte who wants “to find out who I am”.
When the woman explains that she was shipped off to Australia with hundreds of other kids, Margaret is appalled and intrigued, spurring her to investigate further.
Margaret discovers that Charlotte was one of thousands of British children who were unlawfully removed from children’s homes and “unfit” mothers (that is, they were unmarried) and sent to Australia “for their own good”.
Unfazed by stonewalling from the British and Australian governments, Margaret eventually reunites Charlotte and opens the floodgates, with hundreds of other child migrants, most of whom were sent to WA, begging for her to reconnect them with the parents they were told were deceased.
With such heart-rending material, Loach himself might have opened the floodgates, with grown men such as Jack (played with wonderful delicacy by Hugo Weaving), seemingly still trapped in their traumatic childhoods. However, Loach and screenwriter Rona Munro (a veteran of Ken Loach movies) keep a very tight lid on the sentiment, treating it as more of a detective story instead of a conventional melodrama and allowing the emotion and outrage to bubble to the surface.
The film is immensely helped by the character of Len (David Wenham), a chipper, larrikinish optimist who refuses to allow himself to be a victim even though he suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers in Bindoon, the remote former orphanage which has become a byword for the sins of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Played with just the right balance of swagger and sensitivity by the wonderful Wenham, who builds a lovely rapport with the more serious-minded Margaret, Len is one of those classic characters whose spirit infuses an entire movie, making what might have been a bit of a drudge into a celebration of survival in the face of unthinkable abuse.
When Len and Margaret, motoring along in the Aussie businessman’s four-wheel-drive, start singing along to Cat Stevens’ Wild World it’s totally unexpected yet entirely appropriate, a burst of sunshine amidst the gloom but one that acknowledges that sadness and loss is a part of all our lives.