In this heartrending drama, Emily Watson plays real-life social worker Margaret Humphreys, who single-handedly brought the authorities too account for the scandalous forced migration of 130,000 British children in care to Australia. Splitting her time between the UK and Oz, the indomitable heroine risked the happiness of her family and anger of rattled jobsworths (who wanted to preserve the status quo) to reunite kids – now in middle-age – with the families they never knew they had. An accomplished feature debut from Jim Loach, son of legendary British director Ken.
When British families arrived at the docks at Harwich or Southampton in 1938 to welcome the kindertransport – 10,000 Jewish children fleeing the Nazis – it was one of the greatest humanitarian gestures of World War II.
When the war ended the travel was in the other direction with more than 130,000 British children – some as young as three – sent to Australia as "Home Children".
However, their passage proved to anything but humanitarian as they were regarded as cheap labour by the Australian orphanages waiting for them and – for the unluckiest – the abusive Christian Brothers.
Compounding their misery was the fact that many weren’t orphans at all…but were the kids of unmarried mothers or taken from broken homes. They weren’t told the truth. Neither were their parents.
Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys chanced on this unreported forced child migration when she received a letter from an Australian woman who had been shipped out of Britain aged four…and now wanted her mum.
Following firmly in his father Ken’s socialist footsteps, debut director Jim Loach follows the story of Margaret (demurely but affectingly played by Emily Watson) as she makes tentative inquiries before launching into a full-scale bid to reunite those children with their parents.
Solid supporting turns come from David Wenham as Len, a child deportee-turned-self-made businessman who becomes Margaret’s driver and confidante and Hugo Weaving as a man profoundly damaged by his experience of being wrenched away from his mother at such a young age.
Loach and writer Rona Monro (who scripted Ladybird, Ladybird for Ken Loach) relate the shameful episode both calmly and simply, only departing from a straightforward narrative to have Margaret and Len travelling to the Outback to confront the Christian Brothers – in the film’s only overly-contrived scene – over a cup of tea.
It’s a moving and emotionally draining docu-drama and one which provoked both Australian and British governments to offer one those off-the-peg apologies that are currently in vogue.
This is a far worthier tribute to the poor children.