In the late 1980s, Margaret Humphries (Emily Watson), an English social worker in Nottingham discovers a secret that the British government had kept hidden for four decades: 130,000 children in care had been sent abroad to commonwealth countries, mainly Australia. Children as young as four had been told that their parents were dead, and been sent to children’s homes on the other side of the world. Instead of being cared for in their new homes, many were subjected to appalling abuse. They were promised oranges and sunshine, they got hard labour and life pain. Margaret attempts to reunite as many families as she can.
Review by Louise Keller:
The revelation of mistreatment, abuse and lies is powerfully handled in this dramatic and moving true story which canvasses the secretly organised deportation of children from England to Australia in the 50s and 60s. The discovery is made by a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys (beautifully portrayed by Emily Watson), after a distraught young Australian woman pleads for help in finding her roots, having been one of hundreds of children sent by sea to a far away land where plucking oranges from the tree for breakfast and unlimited sunshine are promised.
The tragedy of what happened to the innocent offspring of single mothers unable to keep their children (or who society shamed into relinquishing them) is scandalous, magnified by the fact the so-called Christian institutions that raised them, stripping them of self-worth as the children were used as unpaid labour and often the subject of abuse.
In his feature film directing debut, Jim Loach shows all the sensitivity of his famous director father Ken Loach as he attacks the complex subject matter. Succinctly adapted by Rona Munro from Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles, the film is both an expose and a treasure hunt, in which the search for lost families is undertaken. It is also Humphreys’ personal story and the physical and mental anguish she suffers as she absorbs the pain of those who have become emotionally numb.
We become involved in various back stories, with stalwarts Hugo Weaving and David Wenham playing two of the damaged adults who endured hardships and cruelty at the hands of the Christian Brothers.
Just as Humphreys nurtures those who were abused, she suddenly finds herself nurtured by them, as she is victimised and her personal safety threatened. The scene in which Humphreys takes great care to choose a beautiful room with a tranquil outlook as she prepares to deliver important news that will be forever remembered is indicative of her genuine care and concern; we cannot help but be profoundly moved. This is not the first revelation of nightmare tales about gross misuse of power in the church or supposedly benign governments and it is reassuring to be reminded that there is incalculable value in having a conscience and following your heart.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
At first, it’s just Charlotte (Federay Holmes), an Australian woman who wants to find out “who I am.” It’s 1980s Britain and Margaret Humphries (Emily Watson), is a social worker in Nottingham; Charlotte’s plea falls on fertile ground in Margaret’s heart and triggers an extraordinary story of human decency trying to heal the wounds of human error and much, much worse.
This story burns to be told and not only in Humphreys’ own account as a book, but as a film to reach a wide and incredulous audience. Screenwriter Rona Munro and director Jim Loach (yes, son of Ken) have shown admirable restraint and sensitivity in unfolding the many tightly bound layers of a despicable series of events orchestrated by authorities and supposedly caring organisations.
But the film, like Humphreys herself, is not an attempt at recrimination; it shows how a single individual can bring about enormous change and make a difference, where perhaps organisations, Governments, political parties and other groupings are impotent.
Humphries at first is incredulous at how one single child can be deported across the world and left living in the mistaken belief that her mother is either dead or uncaring. Even before the numbers of such stories escalate beyond counting, she is compelled by her humanity to try and do something to reunite separated families.
Emily Watson is perfectly cast as the social worker in the right place at the right moment of history. Humphreys is a quiet and humble woman whose inner strength is revealed and whose husband, Merv – superbly played by Richard Dillane – gives his wholehearted support, even though the work means frequent separation from him and their children.
Hugo Weaving is heartbreaking as the damaged Jack, who is reunited with his sister but wants most of all to discover his mother and David Wenham expands his already exceptionally diverse repertoire of characters as Len and burns himself into our psyche as another lost soul.
Loach holds the tone perfectly, production design takes us back to the mid-late 80s and the editing pulls everything into focus. Music is as restrained as the tone, with just a faint presence of Lisa Gerrard’s contribution.
Oranges and Sunshine is a triumph of storytelling on screen and puts us through the emotional wringer – as it should.