Once in a while a film based on a true story will come along that makes me almost ashamed by the fact that I was unfamiliar with the story that it has to tell. Oranges and Sunshine, the directorial debut by Jim Loach (son of Ken) based on the book Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys, is one such film.
It tells the story of Margaret Humphreys (Watson), a social worker from Nottingham. One night in 1986 she is approached by a young woman called Charlotte (Feraday Holmes) who was sent to Australia from a children’s home in England when she was a young girl and has decided that she wants to ‘find out who I am’. When she tells her that she was sent by ship with hundreds of other children, Margaret barely believes her. Surely she would have heard of something on that large a scale. She decides to investigate and finds that Charlotte’s mother is still alive and reunites them. Digging deeper she soon finds several others with similar stories including Nicky (Ashbourne) who has recently been reunited with her brother Jack (Weaving). She decides to travel to Australia with Nicky to meet Jack, an emotionally fragile man whose life has been scarred by depression and suicide. After a series of articles and TV news stories about the ‘Lost Children of the Empire’ start to appear, she and her husband Merv (Dillane) are inundated with letters and begin to help people try and piece their lives back together. Stories emerge of kids being falsely told their parents had died, kids being put into the care of Christian brothers and subjected to hard labour and, in many cases, sexual abuse and life in institutions. Margaret meets one of the survivors of this abuse Len (Wenham) a prickly and unemotional man, who intially suspicious, is soon sharing his experiences with her. Margaret attempts to bring the truth to light and make both governments accountable for their part in this forced child migration despite the toll it takes on her home life and health and against often hostile opposition from people who don’t want the truth to be known.
Jim Loach’s debut feature takes a difficult and painful subject matter and deals with it in a truthful and honest fashion. Never wallowing in the suffering of the children, as is often the case in true life films of this type.
He is well served in this regard by screenwriter Rona Munro (Ladybird, Ladybird) who never sensationalises the material, only revealing the extent of the abuse where necessary. A scene near the end where Len takes Margaret to Bindoon, the orphanage he grew up in, is beautifully intercut with scenes of others who were there recounting their experiences. There are the occasional clunky moments (a bonding moment between Margaret and Len where they sing along to Cat Stevens on a car journey feels a little forced), some of the dialogue can be a little heavy-handed and the pacing is slow at times, but this does mean that the story gets the attention it deserves.
Loach’s direction is well-controlled and never showy, using his experiences in documentary film-making to good effect (he had initially intended to make a documentary out of the material before deciding that a drama would be better). The use of hand-held camera is unobtrusive and the film uses the visual contrast between a wintery Nottingham and the hot sun of Australia to create two distinctive locations.
Oranges and Sunshine‘s greatest asset though is it’s cast. Emily Watson is impressive in the central role, combining vulnerability and fierce determination. She excels as her character suffers from her exposure to the difficult and upsetting stories she hears. David Wenham is very good as the prickly and emotionally closed off Len, still managing to convey the anger and hurt beneath the surface. Best of all though is Hugo Weaving, who has rarely been better as the damaged and hollow Jack (it’s his description of the promises made to him before he went to Australia that give the film it’s title). It’s his story that will resonate and move most, and Weaving is extraordinary in the role. His performance is heartbreaking and if those who hand out awards have long enough memories, he definitely deserves to be on many Best Supporting Actor lists come the end of the year. Very solid support too from Richard Dillane as Margaret’s loyal and understanding husband and the fine and underrated Lorraine Ashbourne as Jack’s sister Nicky.
On the whole Oranges and Sunshine is well worth checking out. It may seem like a story better suited to the small screen, but it’s top-notch cast are worth making a trip to the cinema for. It’s not perfect and some may find it a little too slow paced, but it’s an important story that hasn’t had as much exposure as it should outside of a few documentaries and the docudrama The Leaving of Liverpool that aired a few years back. It’s also still relevant. The forced migrations continued right through to the early 70′s and it was only last year that the UK and Australian government issued a formal apology to those that were affected. Jim Loach has made a very fine and worthwhile debut. Dad Ken should be proud.