Jim Loach’s debut is a powerful, deeply moving, understated account of a major social injustice that went unreported for many years and only this past year received an official apology from the two governments involved, those of Great Britain and Australia. The picture is seen almost entirely from the point of view of a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys (a luminous performance of undemonstrative decency from Emily Watson), who stumbled across the story of 130,000 working-class British children separated from their families and siblings and sent to Australia between the end of the second world war and the early 1970s. Some were orphans, some weren’t. Scarcely any record was kept of their enforced deportation, and no one appears to have investigated their Dickensian treatment – especially the way they were subjected to battery, buggery and the breaking of the spirit at the hands of the Christian Brothers into whose hands the Catholic members of each wave of hapless emigrants fell. While not actually replicating it, much of what happened brings to mind the actions of those administrating the Final Solution, which also ties in with a similar story, the Australian government’s inhumane uprooting of Aboriginal children as depicted in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Margaret Humphreys first heard of these deportations when, within a couple of days of each other in 1986, she was approached by two women. One had been forcibly sent to Australia as a child and was now searching for the mother she’d never met and for her own identity. The other, an English woman, had recently been contacted by the middle-aged Australian brother of whose existence she was previously unaware. These two incidents triggered Margaret’s mission to discover how generations of blinkered bureaucrats had got together, or possibly conspired, to treat vulnerable children in this way, and she set out to help reunite these parents and children. A particular spur was given to her investigation by a feature titled "Lost Children of the Empire", published by the Observer in 1987, which eventually lead to Margaret creating the Child Migrants Trust.
The understanding Nottingham social services comes out of the story well, as does the indefatigable Margaret’s sympathetic husband and young children. Officialdom on both sides of the world emerge badly, alongside the often menacing supporters of the Christian Brothers and other organisations that have attempted to sweep their despicable deeds under the carpeting of the confessional. It is here, however, that the film falls down through its failure to pursue and expose the individuals and institutions that created, sustained and concealed this lamentable process over so many years. It appears that this job is yet to be done.