June 10, 2011
In the ‘50’s and ‘60s, thousands of British children were removed from their natural families and deported to Australia and other countries in a shameful social experiment. It was the austere and ultra-conservative post war years, and the children were taken from their single parent families. They were told that their mothers were dead. They were promised “oranges and endless sunshine”, and told that this was for their own good and to ensure their future. However, many were abused or forced into a form of slavery. However, the psychological scars lasted even into adulthood.
Audiences familiar with the excellent and poignant 1992 Australian drama The Leaving Of Liverpool, which explored the forced migration of children from the UK, will be familiar with many of the heartbreaking details of this shameful episode in our history.
Oranges And Sunshine is not merely a rehashing of this story; rather it is based on the efforts of Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker from northern England. Margaret stumbled upon these children and their plight when she agreed to help a distraught Australian woman find her brother Jack (Hugo Weaving). The search takes Margaret to Australia, where she encounters many more such painful stories. A particularly moving scene takes place at Bindoon, the remote Catholic orphanage run by the Christian Brothers, where Margaret briefly visits to get a further understanding of what happened.
Margaret successfully reunited thousands of families, brought both British and Australian authorities to account, and focussed worldwide attention on this extraordinary miscarriage of justice Eventually both governments issued a belated apology. The irony is that when we first meet Margaret she is helping authorities remove a baby from a mother deemed unfit. And Margaret’s obsession puts addition strain on her own family, which is not helped by her long periods of absence.
Watson is the emotional core of the film, and she delivers a superb performance of barely contained anger and outrage and a quiet strength as the tenacious Margaret. It is a rich and complex performance as Humphreys absorbs the pain and anguish of these victims, but also the abuse of many who resent her actions. Weaving brings a painful vulnerability to his performance as the fragile Jack, while David Wenham is also good as Len, another victim who masks his pain with misdirected anger and a misguided loyalty to the Christian Brothers who helped raise him. Richard Dillane also offers solid support as Merv, Margaret’s supportive husband, himself a social worker.
Oranges And Sunshine is based on Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles, and has been superbly adapted for the screen by Rona Munro (Ladybird Ladybird, etc). This is the first feature film from Jim Loach (the son of social realist director Ken Loach), who has worked extensively in television, and is an accomplished and powerfully affecting work. Loach junior seems to have learned his compassion, social values and cinema techniques from his father. His unhurried and restrained direction and his lack of sentimentality and sensationalism doesn’t diminish the emotional impact of this superb film.
Towards the end, we get to seen some documentary footage of the children being loaded onto the boats and we feel for them in their misguided sense of excitement and adventure.
Oranges And Sunshine is a deeply affecting film, but it also one that heightens our awareness and understanding of yet another sordid episode of our shameful history in dealing with refugees and those vulnerable elements of society.