Oranges and Sunshine is the debut feature from Jim Loach – yes, son of Ken – and on the relative strengths of the film, he has picked up more than a few pointers from his ‘ol pop. While the pacing is often languid, which in turn subdues the emotional punch, this confronting work brings to light a horrifying social scandal which many likely weren’t even aware of.
Set largely in late-80s Nottingham, Oranges and Sunshine depicts the efforts of social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) to hold the British government to account for their horrid child migration schemes – which were in operation as late as the 1970s, as providing care for poor children was considerably cheaper abroad – and reunite the children involved, now adults living mostly in Australia, with their parents in Britain.
While you’re liable to go into the film knowing most of the key beats, Loach manages to frame his film like an art-house detective story of sorts, yet still manages to stick to the very serious focal point. Probing deep into the cause and effect of the migration scheme, the film is nevertheless at its strongest as a disturbing portrait of the effect that loss and relocation has on people; observing the victim’s relatives trying to come to terms with a missing, almost-forgotten sibling returning to them is absolutely heartbreaking. This is very much a film that quietly rivets and unsettles; don’t assume it to be harmless just because of the subtle piano music and unassuming, lackadaisical pacing.
Emily Watson is stellar in the lead role as a protagonist incredibly easy to admire, carrying on her shoulders the enormity – both good and bad – that the pursuit of justice entails. The film truly picks up, however, when the damaged Jack (Hugo Weaving) shows up, with his institutional upbringing and lack of a mother having negatively impacted his life severely, preventing him from forming proper social bonds, while Margaret tries to find his family and reintegrate him into society.
While it could be tempting to direct the film with all horns tooting, as a pulsing political thriller of sorts, Loach prefers not to force antagonism or confrontation out of his film; he lets it slowly simmer, to such an extent that it may even divide audiences, withholding answers and justice right until the end. It doesn’t want for incident, yet slowly pores over the facts anyway, and goes further to depict the strain this situation places on Margaret’s family life – for she is jetting off to Australia every couple of weeks – though thankfully never deigns to outright exploit it.
Certainly unsettling though the central intrigue plot is, the film works better when meditating simply but effectively on the importance of identity, of how a name on a piece of paper can change so much for one person, embodied with quietly compelling gusto by Weaving’s nervy, socially awkward turn as Jack. It’s tough subject matter indeed, though Loach smartly punctuates it with some mild but agreeable comic relief, chiefly through David Wenham’s absurdly-maned Len, whose searing skepticism only makes Margaret even keener to press on with her work.
Loach never escapes the final depravity of the situation though, introducing us to more of the dispossessed as we go along, leading to a chilly climax which captures the eerie banality of evil in a sense, as we come to learn quite how these deportations came to pass, juxtaposed against the victims’ attempts to rebuild their lives. Inevitably, some decide this isn’t a path they would prefer to pursue, particularly as the danger of following this tangent becomes clear. It’s low on grand dramatic gestures in a manner all-too expected from the son of a master social realist, but it makes the smaller ones count; there’s no sign of bathos here. And while it might be tempting to compare his work to that of his father’s, it’s not really fair, if only because Loach Sr. has dedicated himself to the plight of the working classes whereas this is a much more optimistic, much more middle-class excursion.
Jim Loach acquits himself mostly well and tackles a difficult subject with admirable restraint, though perhaps too much so. The focus does tend a little too much on Margaret’s own more familiar family grief, which is less interesting and feels like filler in an already airily paced film. A depressing lack of Weaving at the climax is disappointing, and the ultimate confrontation is overly distended and underbaked. Admirably, though, it adamantly denies catharsis right to the end (even really failing to tie up Margaret’s own familial issues), though it is ironically genuine and poignant as a result, even if it is in desperate need of having its dramatic nuts and bolts tightened. Stoicism for its own sake is ultimately what holds this back from being a better film. Still, it makes you feel grateful for something most of us take for granted; a name you know is yours and the familiar embrace of family.
Fundamentally dry and somewhat hamstrung by its own artful restraint, Oranges and Sunshine nevertheless works on the basis of its riveting performances.
Oranges and Sunshine is released in the U.K. on Friday. We are also giving signed posters from the film away, HERE.