June 8, 2011
This film shines a light on a monstrous social experiment. In the decades from the end of the war until the 1970s, maybe 130,000 British children were separated from their parents and sent as child migrants to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Some of the children were very young. Often they were told their parents were dead. Their parents often believed the children had been adopted in the UK.
The children, and their surrendering parents, were promised Oranges and Sunshine. But under such schemes, run by church or private charities, they wound up as cheap labour on farms. Many were bullied, exploited and abused.
In Australia, we think we know about such things. We know quite a lot about the ongoing stories of many members of stolen generations, and have come to understand it’s not something you can put behind you. Yes, the Apology helped. But for separated children, and parents, it’s something you live out your whole life.
This film is made from the point of view of adults, and in particular Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who in the 1980s was approached first of all by a woman who had come from Australia seeking her mother, and then by an English woman who had suddenly heard from a brother she never knew she had.
Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a woman of quiet decency and integrity who helped found the Child Migrants Trust to assist such adults find their families. She does so first reluctantly, then indignantly, and finally obsessively. She appears — in this dramatized version at least — to have had the support of both an understanding husband, also a social worker, and a reasonably decent employer, the Nottingham County Council. It’s hard to credit there were no strains, but they are only mentioned in passing in this film, as Margaret’s own husband and children try to come to terms with her ever-expanding quest.
At the heart of the film, though, are performances from two of Australia’s finest actors as adult survivors. Hugo Weaving plays Jack, a lost soul who is befriended by Margaret and finds his sister, but not his childhood heart’s desire.
I do not know how Weaving does it, but this chameleon of an actor has once again immersed himself in the psyche of another flawed fictional human being and made you believe and ache for him.
David Wenham plays Len, a tough guy. Sucessful, in financial terms, one who came out of the famous (or notorious) Boys Town at Bindoon, in Western Australia, where he had learned that you have to knock down, or be knocked down.
It’s when he takes Margaret Humphreys back to Bindoon, and we see Watson with her fair Celtic skin, and those wildflower blue British eyes glaring into a vicious sun, and reflecting vistas of red dirt, that the film really grabs.
Here Len unfolds his story, and his ultimate revenge on the adults who used and cheated so many children. It was here I began to understand another kind of emotional damage. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t necessarily survive intact.
This is not an angry film, nor does it canvass the blind ideological conviction which drove this monstrous experiment. It’s directed by Jim Loach, (yes, son of Ken) an experienced British TV drama director, and yes, it could well have been a made for television movie. Which is not to deride it. It knows its limitations but what it does, works. It’s a film I’m so glad I have seen.
Director: Jim Loach
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Emily Watson, David Wenham, Tara Morice, Lorraine Ahbourne, Clayton Watson, Richard Dillane, Aisling Loftus, Stuart Wolfenden, Greg Stone
Producer: Camilla Bray, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning
Script: Rona Munro (book Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys)
Cinematographer: Denson Baker
Editor: Dany Cooper
Music: Lisa Gerrard
Running time: 104
Australian distributor: Icon