Wearing its social conscience well and truly on its sleeve, this theatrical debut from esteemed TV director Jim Loach (son of Ken) hardly breaks the family filmmaking mould. But that’s not to disparage the director’s talents in bringing this extraordinary tale to the screen with a measured and very subtle approach.
Oranges and Sunshine tells the personal stories behind the apologies issued by the British and Australian governments to thousands of British children in care who were systematically shipped to Australia and other Commonwealth countries over nigh-on a hundred years until the 1970s.
It was a shady little secret until the 1980s, when a Nottinghamshire social worker began to make contact with the victims, some of whom were as young as four-years-old when they were told their parents were dead before being shipped out, alone, on a boat to a ‘better place’. Not only were some of the children’s parents very much alive, but the institutions in which they were placed were more often than not physically, mentally or sexually abusive. All this in the name of saving a few pounds.
Of course, taking inspiration from real life on such an emotive issue as forced child migration has its downfall in the fact that a pre-existing story must be adhered to, lest the filmmaker upset those involved in the real world. Apparently, social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), took eight years to acquiesce to her shocking story being given the screen treatment. And not only does the film have to remain faithful to her version of events, but to those still dealing with the consequences of being robbed of their childhood.
Although packing emotional clout, the story is sometimes stretched thinly across the film’s 102 minutes and at times lacks the drama that more fiction would produce, especially in relation to Humphreys’ own family versus the amount of time she had to devote to helping others trace theirs.
Sure, her husband and children were saint-like in dealing with her absence in the name of a very good cause, but at times there’s a certain lack of friction, which would have helped shape the film into something more cinematic.
Perhaps this story would have been better suited to television rather than the cinema, but for his biographical screen debut Loach has at least secured some top-notch acting talent. Watson is on understated, dignified form as Humphreys, with Hugo Weaving giving a particularly affecting turn as a victim who may never escape the childhood he was forced to endure.
There’s a lot to be said for such heart-wrenching drama that doesn’t fall into the easy trap of mawkishness or manipulation – Loach has cast actors capable of dealing with raw scenes in a spare yet deeply moving way.