June 8, 2011
Oranges and Sunshine (trailer), a drama set in 1986, is the debut feature of British TV producer Jim Loach, and is based on the book Empty Cradles by British social worker Margaret Humphreys, which chronicles her efforts to expose the British government’s child migrants program of the 1950s and 60s, where over 130,000 children were forcibly sent overseas.
Many of these children – who came from struggling, or single-parent families, and were sent to Australia, and other former British colonies – were under the impression their parents were dead, and that a happier life awaited them elsewhere. The reality was usually far harsher, many were abused by their new carers, or became child labourers.
Humphreys (Emily Watson) is a Nottingham social worker caring for orphaned children. She first becomes aware British children were sent overseas when a woman from Australia asks for help tracing her mother. During this investigation though Humphreys uncovers numerous instances of children being sent overseas.
After learning that Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne), a woman in a support group she convenes, has a brother Jack (Hugo Weaving), who was sent overseas as a child, Humphreys travels to Australia where she soon meets many hundreds of others who were taken from their families, including Len (David Wenham), who is trying to find his mother.
It soon becomes apparent that it wasn’t just the children who were lied to, and as Humphreys continues to reunite now adult children with their families, she learns the parents, whose children were often forcibly removed from their custody, were also lied to, often being told they had been adopted locally, not sent overseas.
Humphreys’ work however is an uphill battle that takes a physical and emotional toll on her. The British and Australian governments are unhelpful, while the charity and church groups who took the children in are angered by the allegations of abuse levelled at them, resulting in threats against her from their supporters.
“Oranges and Sunshine” is an intimate and personal portrayal of an historical episode that culminated with the 2009 apology by then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to the British child migrants, or Forgotten Australians as they are also known, an action that was followed by his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, in 2010.
A compassionately made film that is neither sentimental or sensationalistic, “Oranges and Sunshine” is a moving, harrowing, and emotional drama that lifts the lid on a government policy that aimed simply to save money – care for children was cheaper in Australia than Britain – and one that had no regard at all for those it purported to be helping.