Case closed, you might say, but director Jim Loach – son of Ken – and writer Rona Munro (who wrote Loach Sr’s ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’) are not so interested in high-level political, bureacratic shenanigans. They are concerned with exploring the experiences of these migrants and how their pasts continue to overshadow their lives. They give their story a stirring immediacy by making the ’80s their now, resisting flashbacks and sticking closely to the experience of Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker in Nottingham who in 1986 began digging around in two hemispheres to help migrants discover what happened to them and force both countries to admit their errors and release any information requested.
Munro’s careful script introduces Humphreys as a social worker with a firm and correct touch: a hard worker rather than a hero. She is initially officious when a woman approaches her claiming to have been transported from the Midlands to Australia and asking for help with research. Humphreys relents, and it’s the beginning of a journey which introduces her to hundreds of affected people on both sides of the world.
Two former migrants are given special attention: Jack (Hugo Weaving), a nervous character who is barely able to hang on to normal life, and Len (David Wenham), a much more aggressive presence for whom living in Australia seems, materially at least, to have done him good. Humphreys finds answers for both to questions about their past, and she develops an intriguing friendship with Len, which has complex undertones and leads her to Bindoon, a home in the Outback run by the Christian Brothers and the source of many dreadful stories told to Humphreys by migrants.
The danger of ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, which takes Humphreys’s book, ‘Empty Cradles’, as inspiration, is that by honouring the extraordinary feats of Humphreys – a wife and mother of two – this would become a tale of a woman against the machine, even drowning out the stories of the migrants. Loach doesn’t do that. He makes wise decisions. He doesn’t focus too much on Humphreys’s family life. He avoids both easy emotional showdowns and cascades of horror stories. And he has an eye for a contradictory character who can direct us to the truth by the back route.
Like his father, Loach has made a film uncluttered by an obvious director’s stamp, peopled by sympathetic characters and driven by a desire to say something about the world without losing sight of human experience. In casting Watson, he’s also secured a performance that boldly lacks vanity while exuding a strength that leads you confidently through difficult, troubling terrain.