Between 1900 and 1970, hundreds of thousands of British children were deported to Australia. Told that it would always be sunny and that they could pick oranges from the trees for breakfast, many of them found a world that was anything but welcoming.
"If they were deported then they must have been orphans," says social worker Margaret Humphreys (played here by Emily Watson), but she’s only beginning to uncover what really happened. Many of these children were Britain’s secret shame, the offspring of single mothers whose families would not allow them to keep them. Children were told their parents had died. Parents went looking for them when their circumstances improved, only to be told they had been adopted. In fact, many grew up in children’s homes. Some were used as unpaid labour. For others it was even worse. This film follows Margaret’s journey as she seeks the truth, aims to reunite families, and struggles to keep her own life together under the stress of it all.
It’s the début directorial work of Jim Loach, son of the more famous Ken, and there is much here that reminds one of his father’s work. His approach is confident and sure and he elicits good performances from all involved, especially Watson, who is much more restrained than usual, creating a believable fragility in a character who didn’t know she could be fragile and simply doesn’t see her own difficulties coming. Loach handles the difficult pacing of a protracted story like this very well and, most importantly, manages to avoid excess sentimentality. This helps to create a more realistic picture of what usually happens when birth parents and their children are reunited, where intense emotions have to be subsumed into mundane conversation and the practical difficulties of getting to know one another. Still, the film has its share of heartwarming moments.
It needs them. There is a great deal here that needs to be said about a scandal which still receives remarkably little exposure, and about the suffering of thousands of those involved. This does not mean, however, that there were no happy endings for deportees, with many children adjusting well to their new homeland, and this is an aspect of the real story of which we probably see too little. Only the character of Len (David Wenham) reveals a positive outcome; fortunately he does it well. Though he also has a few demons in his past, he isn’t crippled by them, and his resilience serves as a potent reminder to Margaret that there is no single template for human responses to such situations.
In taking on such a huge subject, Oranges And Sunshine acquits itself well, and there are hopes that it will raise the profile of the deportations, helping to reunite more families in the process. It’s also highly watchable in its own right and is an impressive example of successful issue-based filmmaking.