Oranges and Sunshine is the long awaited adaptation of Margaret Humphreys’ 1994 book Empty Cradles. In 1986, Humphreys – a Nottingham social worker – stumbled upon and eventually uncovered a huge scandal, in which an estimated 150,000 British children were shipped off to various parts of the Empire – Canada, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia – from children’s homes, until as late as 1967.
The film condenses the book’s eight year timeline into just a couple of years and changes the names of most the characters but stays surprisingly faithful to the real life events. It concentrates on just several of the Australian stories and doesn’t mention the other countries involved at all. The reasoning behind this is clearly that the majority of children went to Australia and it would have complicated the film too much to include all of the countries that the British children were sent to. The film’s title alludes to the promises that were made to the child migrants about Australia, but – on the most part – never fulfilled.
The ever dependable Emily Watson (The Proposition, Cemetery Junction) takes on the role of Humphreys, heading up an excellent cast on top form. The brilliantly versatile Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V for Vendetta) stands out with his subtle, quiet portrayal of a child migrant in search of his mother, however, David Wenham (300, Public Enemies) plays the more brash and confident migrant character, Len, perfectly.
After directing many TV episodes (Coronation Street, Shameless and Bad Girls, to name a few), this is Jim Loach’s first feature film. He has a long way to go, before he catches up with his father, Ken, who is still going strong (having recently released Route Irish this year), however, he has handled the screenplay by Rona Munro with tact, great confidence and talent. Not only is the cinematography top notch, with some particularly lovely, postcard-like shots of Australian beaches where the sunnier climate of the country is shown with some beautiful lighting, but he also never lets the harrowing stories get over-sentimental or soppy, so as to leave an unforced, genuine lump in the throats of the audience.
Munro – who, incidentally, wrote Ladybird Ladybird,a Ken Loach film from the same year that Empty Cradles was written – could not have structured the script better, having taken the most in depth and interesting stories from the real life events and handled them with the delicacy and compassion that was required.
Funded with British and Australian money, and also EM Media backed, Oranges and Sunshine is another string to the British, East Midlands and Australian film industry’s bow. And, yes, they did film a lot of the Nottingham parts of the story in Nottingham, so you will recognise a few places from the city; which will probably make you all giddy and excited inside. What should really hit you though is that this is an incredible story not just about our country but about how Nottingham and one of its residents has helped so many people put the pieces of their lives back together and get justice.
Oranges and Sunshine will be showing at Broadway from Friday 1 April