The subject matter is difficult, obviously; and when a film tackles something as harrowing, it’s not going to be an easy watch; but it is certainly rewarding; the forced migration of British children to Australia is an issue that has been in the news in recent times, with the real Margaret Humphreys receiving a CBE in the Queen’s new year’s honours list (following formal apologies being issued by both Australian and British governments), yet despite this issue becoming more talked about it remains relatively unknown and the mission statement of Oranges and Sunshine is to redress that.
Set entirely during the 1980s Oranges and Sunshine opens on a bleak and rainy Nottingham where Humphreys is confronted by a woman who says she was in a children’s home before she was sent to Australia at the age of four, with hundreds of other kids, and hasn’t seen her mother since; an encounter which spurs Humphreys on to research the issue further, and sees her discover the full scale of the child migration scheme.
Travelling to Australia she meets more people who were moved to there as very young children; hearing their stories of deportation and abuse; which leads her to take on more cases, and make it her job not just to publicise the actions of both governments (and hold them to accountability) but also to reunite as many divided families as possible; something that not everyone takes kindly to, as The Christian Brothers (an organisation who ran many of the homes the children were placed in upon arrival, and against whom many counts of abuse were levelled) try to both intimidate and threaten her; yet despite the threats and pressure, Margaret’s strength, courage and diligence drove the story on.
Emily Watson is in almost every scene of the film, and despite her role being demanding (as it calls for her to be understated and exercise a certain economy of performance) she turns in as brilliant a performance as we have come to expect from her (having assumed the role many times in the past; with Angela’s Ashes and Godsford Park being prime examples of what makes her the perfect candidate for the part); portraying Margaret’s role in creating a relationship with the deported children, and bringing her own family situation into question.
The emotional strain of Margaret’s job means she seldom sees her husband (played with gutso by The Dark Knight’s Richard Dillane) and children, and in reality (and the film) Margaret was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, however the film excels itself by not centring the narrative around Margaret; despite her having to be on screen all the time; and it truly is a story about the victims; as it should be.
This is the first feature film Jim Loach has directed (he has worked extensively in T.V; Shameless, Holby City, Waterloo Road) and he clearly has a talent for telling a story in a restrained, subtle, and skilful, manner; as unlike the Oscar winning Erin Brockovich (which is also the story of a woman single-handedly trying to bring a large institution to justice while still being a mother) he has made a film that makes the viewer realise the gravity of the very real events, and not how hard life is for one person.
The photography is simple and efficient; emphasising well the difference between the natural landscape in England and Australia; although the film’s plot doesn’t have a typical structure to it; as there’s no big final cathartic moment; something which actually adds to the story’s feel of authenticity.
Loach is a filmmaker who spends most of his time working on the performance of his actors; something which shows through in the supporting cast; who, as well as Emily Watson, are of the highest quality in their acting. Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) plays Jack (a migrant child who wants Margaret to help find his mother); and conveys with clarity the life long trauma these children suffered; David Wenham (or Faramir to Lord of the Rings fans) turns in as good a performance as Emily Watson as Len (another migrant child now turned dapper businessman, who believes his mother abandoned him to a home); by portraying a man who is deeply emotionally scarred, yet profoundly warm and human; and the penultimate sequence of the film (where him and Margaret go to visit one of the care homes that migrant children were sent to) is directed with such a beautiful economy of style that it’s the standout moment of the film; much of this being down to the onscreen relationship between Wenham and Watson, as well as an astute piece of casting and directing by Jim Loach (a British director well worth looking out for in the future).
Oranges and Sunshine is obviously not the Friday night movie which will help you unwind after a long weeks work, however if films exist to entertain then they also exist to inform, and while the forced migration of children to Australia was an event that took too long to be recognised by both governments of Australia and Britain, and although Oranges and Sunshine does not rectify that, it at least lets people understand what happened, and if we will keep on seeing films of this quality and social importance, then we are in for a rich period of British cinema.
Oranges and Sunshine will be released in the U.K. on April 1st (after debuting at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 25th), and has it’s Australian release date set for May 12th.