She begun to dig in to the records and was shocked by what she found. Chiefly, that thousands of British children were shipped to Australia in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Australia wanted to boost its population, and the orphanages of Britain were overflowing with babies – many born to unwed mothers or to parents who couldn’t cope with them. Many of the children were dishonestly told that their parents had died, and that they were being sent away for a better life (the “oranges and sunshine” of the title) ‘down under’. The reality was often very different, with many children used as cheap slave labour on remote farms, while others experienced horrific abuse in private homes and institutions.
Humphreys (here played by Emily Watson) travels to Australia to meet some of the adults forcibly relocated as children, and is overwhelmed by some of their stories. Many of them nurse deep emotional scars. Unsurprisingly, the scandal proves an embarrassment for both the Australian and British governments, with neither wishing to recognise or accept any blame for what happened to the children.
A co-production between Australian and UK producers (including the BBC), Oranges and Sunshine, as a piece of cinema, feels like a superior TV movie. However, don’t let that put you off. It examines a truly shocking episode in British history, and it would be impossible not to be moved by the story that unfolds here. It’s well told and well acted, with notable performances from Watson, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham (the latter two being adults still coming to terms with their childhood experiences). It also, wisely, avoids trying to tie up all the loose ends in a pat and saccharine ending. As Humphreys herself realises towards the end of the film, for many of these people, there will be no “great cathartic moment”. Some damage runs too deep to ever be undone.