Between the 1940s and 1970s, thousands of children, many of whom were in the care of that state, were forcibly deported from the United Kingdom to Australia. Many were told their parents had died or abandoned them, while the parents frequently never found out what had become of their children. The children, promised the oranges and sunshine of the title, in fact found themselves in Australian care homes, where many suffered abuse. Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach, aims to shine a light on the scheme and the social worker, Margaret Humphries (played by Emily Watson), that stumbled upon its aftermath and became dedicated to helping the migrants find their roots and their families back in Britain.
This is a far-reaching tragedy in terms of those affected and the extent of the government cover-up that kept it under wraps for years but writer Rona Munro has scaled the story right back, choosing to follow closely the crusading work of Margaret and the individual stories of a few deportees. To a certain extent this tactic has worked wonderfully- we get a great insight into the emotional distress caused by the deportation scheme and the sacrifices Margaret made to help. However, this is at the expense of exploring the origins of the scheme itself. I came out of the film with unanswered questions- who was behind the scheme, why did it start and how did it go unnoticed for so many years?
Oranges and Sunshine perhaps works best then as a character study of Margaret herself. Watson’s performance is excellent; perfectly portraying the balancing act a social worker must maintain in their working life- being able to listen and empathise but maintain a professional distance from often heartbreaking circumstances. From the opening scene, in which Margaret has to take a baby from its mother, it is clear Watson has got this dynamic spot on. The supporting cast is just as accomplished. Hugo Weaving is wonderfully broken down as Jack, a former child deportee whose life has been dominated by the pain of having been apparently abandoned by his parents.
Oranges and Sunshine is a heartbreaking story, expertly told but because of the tragic subject matter, I fear it is a film that may struggle to find an audience in the cinema. I hope I’m proven wrong.