How could more than 130,000 children be shipped from Britain to Australia and other Commonwealth countries, often without their parents’ knowledge, and the world not know about it? This was the question British social worker Margaret Humphreys began to ask in 1986, when an Australian woman arrived unannounced at her workplace and asked for help in finding her lost family.
It is also the chilling poser at the heart of Jim Loach’s debut film, Oranges and Sunshine, which centres on a policy that saw children from poor and struggling families sent halfway across the world to a promised new life. Instead, many endured virtual slave labour and, in some extreme cases, serial abuse.
In the film, we follow Margaret (Emily Watson – Hilary and Jackie, Red Dragon) as she investigates the history of a government-approved deportation programme. She gradually uncovers the devastating effects that the deportation has had on its victims, many of whom are estranged from their families and, in some cases, left permanently damaged.
In Australia, Margaret’s efforts amass evidence that defenceless children, in the care of the Roman Catholic Christian Brotherhood, have been physically and sexually abused by members of the order. However, Margaret is seen as a troublemaker, an outsider stirring up long-forgotten memories.
Back in the UK, charities and government officials are refusing to accept responsibility for sending the children abroad, insisting that many were from broken homes and would have been worse off in the UK.
The full extent of the programme eventually becomes clear and Margaret finds herself travelling back and forth between the UK and Australia, her efforts keeping her away from her own family for lengthy periods. Meanwhile, she receives death threats and becomes victim to an attempted attack by an angry opponent of her work.
Margaret eventually finds personal solace as her efforts finally come to fruition. Families are brought back together after decades apart, and the now grown-up children are able to establish their true identities. Finally, in 2009-10, after many years of official denial and vacillation, there are full public apologies from the Australian and British governments.
Loach’s film intelligently explores a grave injustice, yet also focuses on the personal experiences of the Nottingham-based social worker. It is based on Margaret’s 2004 memoir Empty Cradles. The title, Oranges and Sunshine, refers to the inviting picture of a new life sold to the children in advance of their long journey to the other side of the world. It is a shattering, yet inspiring story.
Complementing Watson, Australian stars David Wenham (Public Enemies, Moulin Rouge) and Hugo Weaving (Lord of the Rings, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) give powerful, nuanced performances in supporting roles. The film is an intense journey from the discovery of injustice and suffering to a cathartic resolution and fulfilment that will linger in the memory for a long time.
Oranges and Sunshine is released on 1 April in UK cinemas.