The film shows how Humphreys, perfectly played by Emily Watson, uncovers the horrifying scandal when she meets a woman who wants to track down her mother. The woman has confused memories of being sent to Australia as a little girl, and the social worker is sceptical at first. Then she meets another woman with a long-lost brother who was also sent to Australia. Humphreys digs a little more, travelling to Australia to meet the deportees, until the magnitude of the suffering she uncovers almost overwhelms her. People who always thought they were orphans turned out to have still-living mothers in the UK; British mothers who were told their children had gone to better lives, never knew that in some cases they were being used as slave labour, beaten – or worse. The sheer numbers horrify – around 130,000 child migrants suffered under the scheme.
Then things take an even darker turn when Humphreys finds out about Bindoon, an infamous Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, who have many supporters. Public opinion begins to turn against her…
Watson’s pale, expressive face, creased with worry and fear, is a joy to see and a rebuke to the Botox brigade. An almost unrecognisable Hugo Weaving is shudderingly moving as Jack, the man who finds his long-lost sister and faces his past. And David Wenham’s portrait of Len, the brutalised boy turned wealthy man, who hides his hurt under humour and obnoxiousness, is superb.
After the preview screening there was a Q&A with Loach (son of Ken) and Margaret Humphreys herself. Margaret’s real-life struggle continued long after the events of the book and film – the British and Australian governments only recently apologised for their cruel policies. The apology was almost Gordon Brown’s last act in power, she observed, but the question of reparation to the child migrants is still unsettled. Loach is a worthy follower in his father’s footsteps with this terrible tale of injustice meted out to struggling, working-class families.
‘Oranges and Sunshine’ by Margaret Humphreys (first published as ‘Empty Cradles’) is published by Corgi, £6.99. ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ the movie opens in early April.