We begin in Nottingham in 1986. Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is a social worker who’s day job involves having to remove babies from struggling mothers and running group therapy sessions for adults who were adopted as children. It’s through one of these sessions that Margaret meets Charlotte who arrived in Australia from England aged 4 and apparently an orphan. She knows she came on a boat with other children but that’s all she knows. She wants Margaret to help her discover where she really came from.
Disbelieving and reluctant to get involved at first Margaret then comes across Nicky, another woman in a similar predicament. Nicky’s brother was sent to Australia while she was left behind, they’ve recently reunited and want to find their mother. Margaret begins to spend her free time leafing through old archives and dusty records and fighting bureaucracy to try and find Charlotte’s mother. With the help of her immensely understanding husband Merv (Richard Dillane) they succeed. Merv is so helpful he even supports Margaret in a trip to Australia next to meet Nicky’s brother Jack (Hugo Weaving). It’s at a reunion at Jack’s old orphanage where Margaret meets yet more “Orphans” who think they may have family that can be traced and after this the ball is well and truly rolling.
The forced deportation of thousands of children to Australia in the 1950s and 60s, many with living parents who were never consulted is well known about today. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1986 it was still effectively a state secret. Then again it’s hard to believe that the deportations continued until 1970. This is obviously still a fresh subject and one crying out to have a film made about it. I’m just not sure this was it.
Empty Cradles was written by Humphreys herself which gives the material integrity but maybe also takes it off course. While the subject matter is always engaging its frustrating that the story doesn’t always let you engage with it. Humphreys is the star of the film but those experiencing the real drama are the deportation victims she meets and tries to help. She goes on a journey of sorts, nearly sacrificing her family for the work she’s doing and suffering trauma from the awful stories of abuse and neglect she has to hear. However it’s as if the drama is really happening around her not to her and while she misses it, so do we. This leaves her a rather flat character and both she and her husband come across as a little too saintly and lacking in depth. This is a shame because I was so looking forward to seeing Emily Watson on the big screen again and I don’t think the role gave her much to work with. Hugo Weaving on the other hand is outstanding as the gentle but obviously damaged Jack. Utterly convincing in every scene, he just isn’t in enough of them. While David Wenham is also excellent as the damaged-to- the- point -of- emotionless Len I wish Weaving had had a bigger part.
There were 130,000 deportees in all and Humphreys obviously had closer relationships with some than others. While not wanting to “Hollywoodise” the story and make it about a single person it felt as though the story should have been more focussed. The scenes are short and the action constantly jumps location making it look as if Humphreys travelled to Australia every other week after 1986. And yet the film drags and seems longer than its 105 minutes. This is a story that doesn’t really know what its about because the source material is vast and perhaps the writer was overwhelmed, unsure what her themes really were. It gives a good over view of the subject but lacks the punch that a real life emotive issue like this should have had. I’ve read that Loach was thinking of making a documentary then changed his mind and made a drama. While he’s obviously made a career for himself in drama I feel this film might have worked better as a documentary in order to do its subject and subjects true justice.
If you want to find out more about this issue you can visit the website for the organisation that Humphreys set up, the Child Migrants Trust. http://www.childmigrantstrust.com/