JIM (son of Ken) Loach’s Oranges & Sunshine would have been a difficult film to get wrong given its emotive subject matter and sentimental possibilities. But its overwhelming success is therefore all the more impressive.
The true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham played by Emily Watson, the film follows the events that led up to and beyond the uncovering of one of the most significant social scandals of recent times: the deportation of thousands of children from the United Kingdom to Australia.
Almost single-handedly, against overwhelming odds and with little regard for her own well-being, Margaret reunited thousands of families, brought authorities to account and drew world-wide attention to an extraordinary miscarriage of justice.
Loach’s film condenses the time frames and uses fictional characters to inform Margaret’s journey, but it aspires to an emotional reality that is utterly authentic and bases all of the stories we hear on cold, hard truths.
Admittedly, this can make for heavy viewing and draws comparisons with the socially aware and grittily realistic style of Jim’s father. But it’s also an inspiring story in many ways, both as a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit and the remarkable dedication of the woman at the centre of the story.
Watson is absolutely superb as Margaret, expertly portraying her as a selfless figure struggling – and sometimes failing to cope – with the responsibilities of uncovering a scandal, righting wrongs and being there for both her family and the ‘orphans’ she comes to represent.
She displays a fascinating knack for listening that’s somehow perceptive and sympathetic without being showy, but which taps into the professionalism needed to do Margaret’s job, and which is credibly offset by the fear, anxiety and frequent distress she also has to contend with on a daily basis.
And she’s superbly supported by Richard Dillane, as her husband, and Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, as two of the children she comes to befriend and trust the most on her journey of discovery.
Weaving, in one particularly heartbreaking scene, will have you in tears without feeling manipulated, while Wenham’s gutsy, raw portrayal of Len never allows the character to become a victim, or even easily likeable… but rather someone whose emotions and true loyalties have to be patiently unlocked, but who we come to admire just as Margaret does.
Loach, for his part, combines hard-hitting facts and emotions that refuse to pull their punches, with a humanity and sense of optimism that’s inherent within all of his primary characters, thereby enabling viewers to become thoroughly absorbed in their story without feeling as though they’re being preached to or told what to think.
As such, his tears and his smiles are hard earned, rather than force-fed, and leave you with nothing but admiration for the people at the centre of the story and for this very fine movie as well.