This sorry tale begins when social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is approached by an Australian woman searching for her long-lost mother. It is the mid-80s, well before the advent of the Internet and the easy availability of information so this is no easy task. This woman tells Margaret that when she was a kid, she was shipped off to Australia with hundreds of other children who had been wards of the British state. She finds this hard to believe, at first, because the forced deportation of kids – orphaned or not – would be entirely illegal. However, when she starts doing some digging around, it soon becomes clear that not only were these children forcibly removed from their home country, but many of them were the children of single mothers who were very much alive at the time of their departure. Margaret travels to Australia to meet some of these forgotten children – including Jack (Hugo Weaving) and Len (David Wenham) who have been affected in profoundly different but equally heartbreaking ways – and set about making things right for them.
Oranges and Sunshine is directed by Jim Loach, son of Ken, who has clearly inherited his father’s sense of righteous anger. This is a story that calls for righteous anger and, even though it is at its heart a feel-good story about redemption, if you don’t leave the cinema filled with rage, your gift for forgiveness is truly admirable. What he does extremely well is capture the suffering of the men and women who were first abused by the system and then by their supposed carers physically, mentally and, in the case of boys sent to a workhouse run by the Christian Brothers, sexually. Their pain is visceral and almost uncomfortable to watch.
This is due in no small part to the cast who are uniformly excellent. Watson, in particular, brings real depth to the kind of ultimate do-gooder role that can often be irritating. Margaret is by no means perfect – the mental strain of listening to the terrible stories of these damaged people begins to impact on her health – and Watson smartly avoids the steely determination that lesser actresses would have settled for in favour of vulnerable determination that sits well. Weaving’s quiet desperation is truly heartbreaking.
A deeply affecting story, respectfully but truthfully told, Oranges and Sunshine will shock and enrage. Well worth your time.