Starring: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving
Directed by: Jim Loach
SUMMARY: The story of social worker Margaret Humphreys, who uncovers the forced migration of children from the UK by the British government and vows to bring the families back together once more.
The true story of one woman’s tireless efforts to put right a shameful British Government secret, ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ is a slow-burning, deeply affecting film. Adapted from the 1994 book ‘Empty Cradles’ by director Jim Loach (Son of Ken) it also marks a hugely impressive debut feature.
Following years of work in television, on the likes of ‘Casualty’ and ‘Footballer’s Wives’, Loach makes the transition to film with aplomb. Shot in an uncomplicated, unfussy manner, the director knows that the power of the story alone is enough to keep you riveted. And what a story it is.
On a cold, damp Nottingham night in 1986, social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is approached by a woman claiming to have been taken from a British children’s home at a young age and shipped to Australia, where she grew up with no knowledge of her family. Yet, aware of the illegality of such a tale, Humphreys writes it off. It’s only later when she hears of a similar story that she begins her investigation, uncovering a grubby government secret in the process.
From the late nineteenth century until 1970, around 100,000 children were taken from care in the UK and shipped off to various spots around the Ccommonwealth. Many were told that their family either didn’t want them, or were dead. The parents, meanwhile, were informed that their children had been moved into care across the UK.
Promised a new life full of “oranges and sunshine,” what many of the children shipped to Australia actually experienced was a life of hard labour and abuse, of all kinds. Uncovering their story, Humphreys dedicates herself to reuniting these “lost children of the empire” with their families, all while receiving no help from a government unwilling to admit to their mistakes, and violent intimidation from those who would prefer the revelations remained secret.
Jumping from Nottingham to Australia, much of the gut-wrenching power of the film comes from the stories that these children, now adults, share with Margaret. Years later they still carry the emotional scars. Acting as a counsellor as much as a social worker, Margaret absorbs their horror, putting her own health at risk and her family life under terrible strain.
Watson is fantastic, managing to convey fragility and vulnerability simultaneously with remarkable determination. As the mental strain piles up, you can see her buckling under the pressure.
Yet it’s Hugo Weaving as the bearded, introverted Jack that provides the highlight. Weaving is utterly believable, embodying a character that has internalised years of hurt, regret and abuse, yet remains proud and strong. It’s a truly masterful turn. I’ve not seen a better performance in years.
‘Oranges and Sunshine’ makes very few missteps. Loach’s lone attempt to inject action into proceedings falls down. Similarly, a bonding session between Humphreys and one of the orphans is a little cringeworthy. But it doesn’t really matter. Such moments are fleeting. The vast majority of the film just allows the amazing story to be told.
Ultimately, what Loach provides is that most rare of things; a touching, deeply upsetting drama that retains its warmth without ever slipping into sentimentality. Marked by some great performances, it’s an experience you are unlikely to shake off in a hurry, if ever. Highly recommended.